Natalie's Everyday Heroes: Jean Crane of Bridge the Divide Scholars

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GRAFTON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Getting a college scholarship is a big accomplishment, but once students get to school, there are a lot of other expenses that aren’t covered. Books, fees, even food can all add up.

Those extra costs gave a Grafton woman, Jean Crane, an idea, and she created a scholarship to cover those costs. The program is called, Bridge the Divide Scholars.

The walls in Crane’s condo are filled with her beautiful paintings.

“I have a gallery in Door County that handles my work now, and a studio in downtown Cedarburg where I work,” Crane, who’s been an artist and a teacher her whole life, said.

That talent has allowed her to work as a professional artist, but she recently started thinking about the role luck plays in our lives.

“I go to the Unitarian Church in Mequon, and there was a sermon on luck,” she said.

Maybe it was luck, or the inspiration of the sermon, that brought Pa Kou Lee into Crane’s life.

“The title is, "I'm Just a Human,” Lee said as she started to read from one of her recent poems. She is a talented writer and student.

“Everywhere I go and everything I do, people are always looking at me strange,” she read. “Calling me a virus.”

She wrote several poems about her experience as a teenager, dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I'm slowly going crazy by the thoughts of you. It's exhausting to be cooped up in this house,” the poem continues.

The poems are featured in a new anthology called, “The Quarantined Teen.”

“People are assuming I am Chinese, which I am not,” Lee said. “But they're assuming I'm Chinese, that I brought the Covid to the United States.”

Lee is Hmong and moved to the United States when she was 4 years old. She said discrimination is something she’s faced.

“Since English is my second language, I get bullied a lot. Because of my accent and how I speak,” she explained.

But an encouraging teacher set on her on the path to academic success. She graduated from Golda Meir High School this year, and she’s now a freshman at Mt. Mary University with a full scholarship.

“My mom told me that school is better for me and that she wanted me to have the education that she didn't have,” Lee said.

She chose to study early childhood education because she’s the oldest in a large family.

“So, I have to be able to help them with their homework. Help feed them,” she said of her siblings.

That’s also partly what led her to Crane.

“We were looking for a demonstrated sense of responsibility,” Crane said of potential scholarship winners.

Crane is a member of the group Bridge the Divide, which provides a forum for conversations on race.

“And it's certainly in the news all the time now, so I think people are becoming much more aware,” Crane said.

Those conversations also got her thinking.

“It seems to me that, it makes sense for those people who have been lucky in their lives, to give a helping hand to people who have had more challenges,” Crane said.

So, between the sermon on luck and her conversations with Bridge the Divide, she came up with the idea to launch Bridge the Divide Scholars.

Lee is one of the first recipients to win the award, and her high school counselor had encouraged her to apply.

“Her teachers just wrote glowing, glowing letters about her. She got the highest praise,” Crane said.

Lee and the other two award winners this first year each get $1,000 a semester to spend on any additional costs that come along with school.

“Books alone are extremely expensive. They may need a computer. They may need bus fare,” Crane said.

Lee said she needed some of the money to help her family.

“This money meant that I could use it to buy books, I could give it to my mom to buy food for us since she has a limited amount of money,” Lee explained.

Crane said that’s exactly what she was hoping for.

“I would hope that it makes things a lot easier and more predictable,” she said. “So a fear of expenses isn't always clouding someone's mind in the background.”

The scholarship has also led to a friendship. Both Crane and Lee now feel lucky to have the other in their life.

“It makes us a part of the larger community instead of just living in our little bowl here, in Cedarburg and Grafton,” Crane said.

Crane and a committee of five others are now fundraising for next year’s group of Bridge the Divide Scholars. All of their recipients attend Golda Meir High School. Crane said she hopes their effort inspires other groups to fund a similar program. For more information on Bridge the Divide, visit www.bridgethedivide.life, or email bridgethedividecburg@gmail.com.

And to nominate someone for Natalie’s Everyday Heroes, send Natalie a message at nshepherd@cbs58.com.

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