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SOAR program, Katie Kirby fund helping students in need during COVID-19 crisis

As the COVID-19 global health crisis continues, ACU is able to assist students in need thanks to critical resources that have been in place for years: the Student Opportunities, Advocacy and Resources (SOAR) program in the Office of Student Life and its Katie Kirby Student Success Fund

Since Fall 2015, SOAR staff members have worked with students who are struggling, recommended by others or by themselves, to connect them with resources so that they can succeed as a student. Staff members help students identify the obstacle(s) in their way and find a solution, advocating for themselves alongside SOAR staff advocating on their behalf, said Shannon (Buchanan ’07) Kaczmarek, director of residence life and student advocacy services.

Not every student who works with SOAR requires financial assistance, but for those who do, funds from the Katie Kirby Student Success Fund are prioritized based on immediate living needs – rent, groceries, clothing, transportation, hygiene, etc. – and if such assistance will support the student in continuing on in their studies, said Lauren Boyles, assistant director of student advocacy. SOAR works to have funds available for students within 1-3 days of meeting with staff. 

SOAR has seen a dramatic increase in recommendations in the past several weeks because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Boyles said, many of them requiring financial assistance. With classes moved exclusively online for the rest of the semester, a majority of students are not on campus. SOAR is still meeting with students remotely, by phone or by video chat, whether they are in Abilene or back in their hometown. 

A loss of a job, or parents losing jobs, is a common issue. Just in the past week, funds have gone to support students who are out of work and need help with rent and groceries, for example, to make it until graduation in May, Boyles said. 

“These are responsible students with a plan in place,” Boyles said. “They’re not looking for handouts – they’re trying to do classes online, while being worried about having a place to live, needing Wifi at home, etc. These are common situations, and we’re hearing them over and over again.”

Gema Perez, senior graphic design major from Houston, Texas, reached out to SOAR after learning about the program through the student organization Lynay. 


Katie Kirby
The Katie Kirby Student Success fund in named in the memory of 19-year-old Katherine “Katie” Laura Kirby.

Previously called the Student Success Relief Fund, the Katie Kirby Student Success Fund was renamed in Fall 2016 after 19-year-old Katherine “Katie” Laura Kirby, a sophomore from Friendswood, Texas, died unexpectedly. 

The fund has been featured in ACU’s first three Days of Giving beginning in 2017. In lieu of a traditional Day of Giving this spring, the Office of Advancement has dedicated at a minimum the month of April as a Season of Giving to build up the fund to meet the needs of this moment. Donations can be made by clicking here. 

“The SOAR program and the Katie Kirby Student Success Fund are invaluable to ACU students,” said Jim Orr (’86), vice president of advancement. “That this program and fund were already in place and assisting students years before our current crisis is nothing short of providential. It also speaks to our donors – faculty, staff, alumni and friends – who have so generously supported this fund and continue to do so. We are all here for our students and want to help them succeed.” 

The SOAR process is a partnership, Boyles said. Staff reiterate to students that asking for help takes strength, she said, and that they aren’t alone as they work to find a solution to their situation. Resources students often need include counseling, budgetary help, tutoring, housing, doctor appointments, computers or other technology, etc. 

“This isn’t just a sterile process where we learn a need, our team talks to the student and then we write a check,” said Mark Lewis (’95 M.M.F.T.), dean of students. “It’s a relationship. It’s investment in who the individual is and being able to determine not just the immediate need but what’s going on in their life as a whole – to address issues systemically.” 

“It’s a key part to who we are: We care about people on a very personal level,” he said. “It comes back to relationships and the love of Christ being demonstrated actively in delicate situations. Knowing their name, where they’re from, hearing a bit of their story, then investing in helping them move forward successfully.”

If you know of an ACU student in need, please contact SOAR program staff. 

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