Gig Harbor’s Minerva scholarships throw a lifeline to women, interrupted

Sara Gray and her two sons, Charlie, 8, left, and Evan, 10
Sara Gray and her two sons, Charlie, 8, left, and Evan, 10 Courtesy

Sara June Gray is a substitute teacher and single mom raising two young boys.

She’s a substitute at Evergreen Elementary School, floating from classroom to classroom as needed to fill in for absent teachers, and tutoring children who need extra help.

“I love it,” she says of her job, and she has plans to make it her life’s work.

But to move ahead in education, she needs to earn teaching credentials and an advanced degree. It’s been a challenge to find both the time and the money.

“The program I’m in is a bit difficult, because it includes an unpaid internship of four months,” she said. “And of course, raising two kids — and just being an adult — costs money.”

This fall, thanks to a scholarship fund established by a remarkable group of Gig Harbor women, she will be returning to college to complete her master’s degree.

Gray is among eight young Peninsula women who will receive scholarships from the Minerva Fund, established in 1991 by three members of the Gig Harbor Branch of the American Association of University Women.

Named for Minerva, the Greek goddess of wisdom, the scholarship is intended to help women whose academic careers have been interrupted for one reason or another. This year, the fund will give $50,000 to enable six women to return to school.

Pat Berger, the scholarship chairperson, said the Minerva fund “gives women the chance to finish an education they started, but due to circumstances — health, family, finances, et cetera — had to interrupt. It gives women the chance to complete requirements for their careers, and it enables women to give back to our community by using their completed education. “

Minerva scholarships are awarded yearly to women who live and work in the Peninsula School District whose formal education has been interrupted for at least a year.

Gray, 40, is typical, Berger said. A talented jewelry artist, she makes ends meet by selling copper and stone jewelry at farmer’s markets and art festivals, even while working as a substitute teacher and raising her two sons, Evan, 10, and Charlie, 8.

A recommendation letter from a reading program coordinator praises Gray’s dedication and work ethic as well as her flexibility. “She is a remarkable role model, showing that even when life doesn’t turn out how you planned, with perseverance and determination you can achieve your goals,” the coordinator wrote.

Besides Gray, who will resume her online studies at Western Governors University, they are:

Rachael Garcia, a nursing student at Pacific Lutheran University.

Amber Scouller, who is pursuing a doctorate in physical therapy at the University of Puget Sound.

Kathy Wright, seeking a master’s degree in nutrition at Bastyr University.

Tabatha Hoffman, studying nursing at Tacoma Community College.

Lisa VanDoorne, seeking a master’s in executive coaching at Concordia University.

Sarah Whitmarsh, pursuing a degree in gerontology at the University of Nebraska.

Tarra Winslow, studying music at Tacoma Community College.

Many of the women have similar stories of pursuits interrupted. Tabith Hoffman has worked nine years as a para-educator while trying to earn a nursing degree. Tarra Winslow, a talented pianist, has given music lessons in hopes of earning a degree in music. Lisa VanDoone runs a small upholstering business and plans to use her scholarship to learn to be a better entrepreneur.

Rachel Garcia has completed her second year in nursing school and hopes to receive her degree in 2020. Amber Couller has already earned a business degree, and his now received a second Minerva to finish her doctorate in physical therapy. Kathy Wright is just completing her community college work and will move onto study nutritional science.

The Minerva fund was created in 1991 by three accomplished Gig Harbor women: Col. Sybil Mercer, an Army nurse and hospital administrator, Dr. Florence Casey, an economist with the federal government, and Ruth Taylor, a local school librarian.

When Mercer inherited $5,000 from an uncle, her two friends agreed to chip in similar amounts if their AAUW colleagues would match the total. They did, and the fund was born.

Since its founding, the fund has dispersed $337,000 to 182 women.

Minerva director Elizabeth Robinson points out with some pride that Danielle O’Leary, who recently became assistant principal at Peninsula High School, is a past Minerva scholar.

“We are extremely proud of her accomplishments,” Robinson said. “It is our goal to see these scholarship investments support our surrounding communities.”

This year’s scholarships were awarded July 31 during a picnic at Crescent Valley—Sea Cliff Beach in Gig Harbor.

The current Minerva directors are Estelle Bentley, Patricia Berger, Susan Engen, Gail Ferguson, Paula Florence, Kathleen Larson, Patricia Mattox, Patty Nelson, Carol Robinson, Elizabeth Robinson, and Linda Strand. Sybil Mercer, founder and director emeritus, now resides in Tacoma.

For more information about Minerva scholarships, visit