Susan Thomas

Susan Thomas mentors a student Sept. 18 at Casper College. The Craig and Susan Thomas Foundation provides scholarships and support to about 30 college students per semester, and Thomas works with each of them personally.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

Susan Thomas is the widow of the late U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyoming, and the founder of The Craig and Susan Thomas Foundation, which has awarded scholarships and monetary prizes to students who have fallen through the cracks and educators who have championed the needs of at-risk young people.

Recent additions to the foundation’s work include a Retrain to Gain program to help those laid off from the energy industry and new help for homeless students.

The foundation will reach its 10-year life cycle in June 2018 and will then cease operations.

We chatted with Thomas recently about the foundation’s work, which she calls “my life.”

Why is the foundation ending? It was a 10-year mission when we set it up. We are nudging up to our 10th year and so the school year that is ending in June 2018 is our last.

Who made the decision to end it? There is a statewide scholarship board and a board of directors, and the decision was made because we set it up that way. We have people who have devoted 10 years of their lives to this and they have other things to do.

What becomes of the money in June? There will be money left over, and it will be given to nonprofits whose mission is education.

And it’s been successful? When we started, we thought we could afford two students per semester. We have 29 or 30 per semester now, all funded by donors from everywhere. There is so much generosity for this effort. That tells me it’s an important program. I mentor every single of one my students face-to-face, and always have. It’s always been for students who struggled in school and in life.

And you have always held special students who needed a break? They are eager and bright. They want what you and I want. They want validation, to be a part of their community, to have a family. I was in the classroom for 36 years — 18 in the Natrona County School District and 18 in Arlington, Virginia, and this foundation is an extension of that. I had court-ordered seniors in Virginia. They were cynical, angry and tough, but they wanted what you and I have. That’s the hook. They behaved the way they did in order to survive. Some are in prison, some are dead, but I did the best I could.

Will you explain Retrain to Gain? I was driving through Gillette the day hundreds of energy workers were laid off. I grew up in Johnson County, so that’s my neck of the woods. We decided that day to help those in the energy field. They understand that it’s not going to be the way it was, and they are happy to have help to learn something new.

Can you share a success story? There is a girl who hated school. Hated it. She got her GED because she wanted to go and do things. She got funding and mentoring from us. She finished two years at Casper College and went to the University of North Dakota with a double major. She has completed one residency in Denver and is doing a second residency in Casper. She will be a doctor of orthopedics. These people want to succeed.

A final thought? I will miss these students.

Follow community news editor Sally Ann Shurmur on Twitter @WYOSAS

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