Sharon Townsel is old enough to be Kori Buford's mother. But despite the age difference, the women share a common bond: They're both scholarship recipients of the Bowen Foundation.
Robert and Terry Bowen launched the not-for-profit a decade ago and since have doled out $600,000 of their own money to nearly 300 black recipients who want to better their lives. By helping them learn a skill or trade, the object of the foundation is to assist those who need the most help rather than the college-bound.
The Bowens are generous with their wealth and have supported other education initiatives. Robert, who is chairman of Fishers-based Bowen Engineering Corp. and a Purdue University alumnus, provided a $3.25 million gift in 2002 to build an $11 million civil engineering research laboratory on campus. The building is named for the couple.
While the Bowen name is cemented on West Lafayette academia, it appears just as boldly in places such as the J. Everett Light Career Center at North Central High School in Indianapolis-albeit on brochures and applications.
That's where 26-year-old Kori Buford learned about the foundation. A family death in 2003 prevented her from finishing a registered nursing program at Marian College. The financial aid available from the foundation-$1,500 to $3,000-led her to seek her licensed practical nursing certification first from the career center. With that, she could re-enter the RN program at Marian without having to start over. The Bowens also are financing her book fees for a year, a gesture they'll occasionally make, even though it's not part of the foundation's mission.
Buford recently completed the 18-month LPN course and re-enrolled at Marian. She also improved her stature at Community Hospital East, where she had been a nurse's aid. It's that type of success story the Bowens envisioned upon starting the endeavor.
"We've been very fortunate," Robert said. "One of our goals is to try to give other people a chance at the success that we have had."
Bowen Engineering has annual revenue of $120 million and is the city's largest environmental contractor. The corporation employs 800 people, most of whom are union tradesmen, in Indianapolis, Evansville and Gary. It's currently pouring concrete for the downtown Conrad Hilton hotel, a $75 million project.
The roots of the foundation sprout from a committee Robert co-chaired in the early 1990s for former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith. The group's objective was to increase the number of minorities in the trades. After congregating for two years and achieving little success, mainly due to the complexity of getting into the schools and speaking to students, the committee disbanded.
One positive emerged from the gatherings, however. Robert befriended fellow co-chairman Murvin Enders, executive director of the local chapter of the Atlantabased 100 Black Men of America Inc.
Robert reasoned it should be a "nobrainer" to offer scholarships to black students who are interested in learning a trade. So Enders began referring candidates to the Bowens. The effort began slowly, Terry recalled. The demand to receive money for schooling, though, has reached a point that the Bowens don't need to seek applicants. They never turn anyone away, either.
Enders, who serves on the foundation's board, applauded the Bowens for their efforts to help people receive job training.
"I think they're incredible people," Enders said. "[Robert] has always wanted to share and give back to the community. It's not the only thing he does from a philanthropic standpoint. He's just a very good person."
Terry, who serves as president of the foundation, admitted not everyone will complete his or her education. Of the nearly 300 people who have received assistance, 94 have finished their required coursework while 95 are enrolled in a program.
"We look for signs that they'll be motivated to stay with it," Terry said. "Sometimes they have no job or no money and seem almost hopeless in many cases. Those are the tough ones."
The Bowens meet each candidate and request that those fresh from high school bring a parent. Age is no object. The only requirements are that they reside in Marion County, are a graduate of a high school or GED program, enroll in a technical or vocational school, and meet the entrance requirements of the institution. Money is distributed twice a year and deadlines are May 31 and Nov. 30.
The number of men and women who have received aid from the Bowens is about equal. Many attend Ivy Tech State College or ITT Technical Institute. The couple is in the process of building an endowment for the foundation and is halfway to the goal of having $3 million available by 2010.
Kenny's Academy of Barbering in the Meadows neighborhood is among the newest partners of the foundation. Owner Gregory Kenny learned of the Bowens about a year ago from a student aware of the scholarship fund. Kenny sent a proposal to become involved and received a return call from the couple, who indicated they wanted to work with the academy.
The academy charges $4,500 for the 1,500 hours it takes to become a certified barber or stylist. The course takes nine months to complete. Of the roughly 50 students enrolled in the barber's school, about 20 have received money from the Bowens.
One of those is Townsel. The 57-yearold single mother, whose children are grown, began working at the academy as a secretary in October 2001. Wanting to upgrade her life and income, she enrolled at the academy in 2003 and now splits her time there as a student and employee.
"The world changes," Townsel said. "It's not going to wait for you. You have to jump on board."
Townsel considers the Bowens' monetary gift a blessing and described the couple as down to earth and very warm.
Both Buford and Townsel are among several who have written the Bowens expressing their gratitude. That's payback enough for them.
"That means a lot to me and Terry," Robert said. "It's an indicator that maybe they'll make it."