DRACUT -- Lian Nieves was three weeks away from graduating from Lowell High School when the reality set in that she would soon be completing one of the greatest milestones in her life.
With the excitement of wrapping up her high school career came sleepless nights and tears, the 18-year-old said.
The anxiety stemmed from the perceived reality she would not be able to financially support herself in her dreams of going to college, hindering her ability to achieve the life she wanted.
Nieves' father had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma two years ago and was ordered to leave his job. With the news, came the realization that her mother -- who has multiple sclerosis -- would be alone in supporting Nieves and her brother. The financial burden seemed impossible to overcome for the family.
Nieves didn't expect any help. She said she always thought scholarships were only for the gifted or the talented.
"Little did I know that the Greater Lowell Community Foundation and its donors have the needs of all the potential graduates at heart," said Nieves, currently a student at Middlesex Community College, with plans of going to UMass Lowell, and becoming a pharmacist.
"They see we may all not be straight-A students, but they can see our potential, the future, and the desire of the average student, like myself," she said.
Nieves shared her story with the roughly 200 people who gathered inside Lenzi's in Dracut on Wednesday night for the Greater Lowell Community Foundation's Celebrate Giving event.
William Mailloux, the other scholarship winner who spoke during Wednesday night's event, described applying for college as "a nightmare," considering the demands of the cost. He compared the scholarship he received through GLCF to winning the lottery.
"Someone is recognizing you for your hard work," Mailloux said. "The scholarship that's given to you, someone is saying, 'Yes, you have done well and your hard work pays off.'"
Mailloux expressed gratitude to the foundation and the donors in attendance.
"Your act of kindness through words and dollars do help us realize, 'Yes, the future generation can do this,'" said Mailloux, who is majoring in mechanical engineering at UMass Lowell. "And by lending your helping hand, the future generation can also lend their's."
The Greater Lowell Community Foundation, around since 1997, is dedicated to improving the quality of life for people in the 20 communities they serve. The organization connects donors with local non-profits that serve the cause that matter most to them. More than $13 million has been distributed in scholarships and grants by the foundation during its 21 years of operations, according to Chet Szablak, chairperson of the GLCF and executive vice president of Enterprise Bank.
"The constant is the fact that people want to give," said Jay Linnehan, president and CEO of GLCF. "People want to help. Lowell and the surrounding communities are very compassionate group of people who recognize the need of their neighbors."
The theme of Wednesday night's event was education.
"Education, in many respects, is part of the cure for many of the ills our society deals with," Linnehan said.
According to Linnehan, roughly 20 percent of the population of the city of Lowell is at or below the poverty level.
"When you talk about poverty, for example, many of the people who are in poverty are there because they haven't had the type of education needed to get a good job," Linnehan said.
According Szablak, roughly 47 percent of what is distributed by the foundation each year is in the form of scholarships.
He noted that equated to roughly $436,000 given out to approximately 250 Lowell High graduates in 2018. Of these students, 72 percent met the federal household guidelines for living in poverty, or were somehow disadvantaged economically. Roughly 46 percent of the 250 graduates selected were the first in family to attend college, Szablak said.
Lowell City Manager Eileen Donoghue served as Wednesday night's keynote speaker. She previously served in the state Senate, where she chaired the Student Loan and Debt subcommittee.
"If we can't give kids in our cities opportunities to get higher education, we are all going to lose," Donoghue told the crowd. "We are going to lose the talent that they have and that they could present in this global economy. We have to be competitive and we have to make sure that education isn't just for those who can afford it."
Donoghue commended the foundation's efforts.
"You get it," she said. "You get that every dollar matters for the young people like Lian and William. So many, without that help, they may never go to school, they may never get that degree, they may never be the scientist that discovers the cure to cancer."
The funding provided by the foundation goes beyond education. Szablak revealed earlier that $1.6 million was the total amount of grant awards provided to more than 170 non-profits in 2018.
Donoghue praised the foundation for their help toward workforce development, their battle against the opioid crisis and homelessness.
"Margaret Mead once said, words to this effect, 'Never doubt that a thoughtful, committed group of citizens can change the world,'" Donoghue concluded her address. "'Indeed it's the only thing that ever has.' Thank you for changing everybody's world."
For more information on GLCF and how to get involved, visit their website at glcfoundation.org.
Follow Aaron Curtis on Twitter @aselahcurtis