When Yuliyana Kobel was asked to answer a few questions in front of a video camera at age 10, she managed just a few words before bursting into nervous tears.
The shy fifth-grader from Portland, who had emigrated from Ukraine when she was five, had wanted to demonstrate her appreciation for Vicki and Jim Adams, her partners in a then-fledgling scholarship program, but she couldn't muster the confidence.
At that young age, Kobel couldn't grasp the significance of the Vancouver couple setting aside $100 a month for her college education through Marathon Education Partners, a Portland-based, long-term scholarship program. But she felt an instant connection to the kindly couple that took her to the Oregon Zoo and the Old Spaghetti Factory and checked up on her regularly.
The program, founded in 2003, pairs bright, low-income fourth-graders with couples or individuals who start savings accounts for them and promise to check up on them at least once a month until they graduate from high school. The brainchild of Portland lawyers Jeffrey Cronn and Dan Blaufus, Marathon aims not only to help students financially but get the idea of college into their minds at a young age.
The program's first four graduates, including Kobel, will start college this fall.
"It's like a reminder," said Andrew Fowler, who joined the program as a donor in its first year. "They have a benefactor -- someone who believes in them. And it's ingrained in them."
With the help of Portland Public Schools, the program identifies low-income schools where it distributes informational fliers. Interested students go through an application process and attend an interview, accompanied by a parent.
Many of the parents are recent immigrants who want their children to have better lives but lack the money to start saving for college. "We want to make sure that the scholar coming in is going to be well-supported and encouraged by a parent," Fowler said.
Anna Likhatskaya, a recent program graduate who also emigrated from Ukraine, will be the first in her family to go to college.
"My parents would probably make me go if I didn't want to," she said. "They think education is really important."
Her scholarship partners, Christine and John Aanderud, provided extra educational encouragement along with professional advice. "They gave us an opportunity to go out on trips and see different careers," she said.
The program's concept is similar to that of the "I Have A Dream" foundation, through which sponsors make a financial promise to help a class of students make it from elementary school to college graduation. But Marathon founders wanted to create a model in which one sponsor could still make a difference -- even if they couldn't afford to help a classroom full of kids.
Cronn acknowledged that the financial commitment is significant. "But the point of this is that it's not directed at people of super-high means," he said. He added that the one-on-one relationship the program offers can transform students' lives.
And it certainly affected Kobel, who went from a shy child to a spunky, confident young adult.
"It impacts the child's life," she said reflectively. "It's really hard to explain what they've done for me. They've done so much for me."
Before starting at Portland State University in the fall, Kobel is spending her summer as a research intern at a busy Oregon Health and Sciences University behavioral neuroscience lab -- an internship she said she got because of the scholarship program and the Adams' encouragement.
And even though Kobel graduated from the scholars program, Vicki Adams, who lost her husband Jim early this year, said she looks forward to a lifetime relationship with her scholar.
"Her mother tells me, 'She's your daughter, too,'" Adams said with a laugh. "And she tells me I'm part of their family."
Jim Adams didn't get to see Kobel graduate or be crowned Marshall High Rose Princess, but he did get to hear her publicly express her appreciation. Late last year, Kobel got up in front of about 200 people to make a speech at a Marathon program auction.
After talking about her experiences, she asked the Adamses to stand up so she could thank them for all they'd done for her over the years.
This time, the Adamses had the tears in their eyes.