By the time Colorado-based businessman Don McFall founded The
Challenge Foundation in the mid-1990s, he was no stranger to the needs
of underserved populations in the community. McFall had already spent
several years working with numerous organizations serving
underprivileged Coloradans, including the homeless and young people.
When it came to the youth programs he worked with, he found they were
offering piecemeal services that weren’t garnering the long-term success
in addressing educational disparities that he hoped to see. While some
youth organizations offered summer programs for students, they did not
have year-round mentoring. And while other programs offered mentoring
services, they did not provide strong academic support.
McFall began The Challenge Foundation as a remedy for the shortfalls
in services he observed, founding an organization that put all of the
pieces of the puzzle together. As a result, The Challenge Foundation is a
holistic program designed to help students to and through college,
planting seeds that will get them into their first career and position
them to create a better life for themselves, their families, and their
In order to best position children from underprivileged communities
to excel, The Challenge Foundation serves low-income, high-achieving
students in the metropolitan Denver and Aurora areas by providing them
with scholarships to attend private independent schools the organization
partners with. These young scholars begin the program as sixth graders
and continue until they have completed college.
Becoming a Challenge scholar is a rigorous process. It begins with a
pool of hundreds of public school students who have been recommended by
their teachers to take an admission test in the fourth grade. Challenge
selects a group of students from this pool to attend an informational
meeting with their parents so they can learn more about the program and
what it has to offer. Candidates then go on to submit student and parent
applications, along with teacher recommendations and transcripts, and a
group of 40 students are invited to a summer program between the fourth
and fifth grades.
After completing the summer program, chosen students are moved to the
next stage of the selection process, which entails interviews and home
visits that take place during the students’ fifth grade year. By the end
of this selection journey, 10 students are chosen and asked to apply to
one of the foundation’s partner schools.
“All of our students that get into Challenge have to apply to our
partner schools just like any other applicant at those schools,” said
Holly Dichter, executive director at The Challenge Foundation Denver.
“By that point, we’ve known them for a year and we feel pretty confident
in their ability to get through the application process and to get into
the independent schools.”
After being admitted, Challenge and the partner schools pay for the
majority of the students’ tuition, and families make a contribution that
is calculated based on their income level. Challenge also pays for
anything students need to be fully engaged at school—from sporting
equipment to school supplies to clothes to field trips. But this is just
the beginning of the relationship and the level of services The
Challenge Foundation offers.
To support them throughout the length of the program, Challenge
provides advisers, who are also members of the staff, as a direct point
of contact to help students and families get access to whatever help
“I think of that as the hub on a wheel,” said Dichter. “They’re
checking in with the student, the teachers, the parents, the mentor, the
tutor—anybody that’s involved in the kid’s life—to make sure the
supports we have in place are working, or to add additional support if
needed for a student to be successful.”
Similarly, Challenge provides one-on-one mentoring from a volunteer
who commits upfront to dedicate seven years to building a relationship
with a scholar and their family. Mentors are asked to check in on their
assigned student on a weekly basis and participate in face-to-face
activities with them twice a month.
“Our mentors can really do anything with our students—so it may be
going to their basketball game, taking them to a play at the performing
arts center, taking them skiing, or shopping with them for prom,”
Dichter explained. “It can be any variety of activities that mentors and
students do together, but we really value that long-term relationship.
We know it can take a long time for a sixth grader to feel really
comfortable with a new adult in their life and so by giving them seven
years together, what we see at the end of that is that they’re more like
When it comes time to apply for college, Challenge is there to
partner with their scholars’ college counselors to help families
navigate the application process—which is particularly important because
the majority of Challenge scholars are first-generation college
students. These services include paying for SAT or ACT preparation
courses—as well as covering exam fees—helping students create a list of
colleges to apply to, and advising families on the financial aid process
and assisting them with the FAFSA.
“Most of our independent schools don’t have the kind of students that
need the financial aid for college like our students do, and though
their counselors are certainly supportive, I think our staff has learned
through the process how much support our families need and we spend a
lot of time on the financial aid process with them,” said Dichter.
As a result of all the hard work and years of dedication of Challenge
staff and volunteers, 50 percent of scholars receive a full ride to
college, while those who need financial support can get funds to help
pay their tuition. Challenge also pays for textbooks and other resources
students need. In addition, scholars get other forms of assistance to
acclimate to the pressures of college life.
“I spend a lot of my time helping them access resources. So if a
student is really struggling in a math class, we find out if there are
resources on campus or if we need to find an outside tutor to help them.
Or if a student is struggling with mental health, we find out what
steps we are going to take to help them get on track and in the right
headspace. We help kids book flights to and from school, figure out
textbooks—really whatever they need to be successful, we are committed
to,” Dichter said. “Since 99 percent of our students are
first-generation college scholars, we answer some of those questions
that their parents can’t answer or answer the parents’ questions because
they don’t know what it’s like to be on a college campus. We really
strive to help fill that gap for them.”
“Since 99 percent of our students are first-generation college
scholars, we answer some of those questions that their parents can’t
answer or answer the parents’ questions because they don’t know what
it’s like to be on a college campus. We really strive to help fill that
gap for them.”
The results of McFall’s vision of providing holistic services that
fill the gaps between disadvantaged students and their long-term success
can be seen in the lives of The Challenge Foundation’s alumni.
Challenge’s very first scholar was homeless when McFall met her. She
went on to work at a software company and currently serves on
Challenge’s board of directors. Her sister has also found success in the
technology industry in California. Another alum, who actually spoke at
her alma mater’s high school graduation ceremony this year, went on to
For Dichter, this is evidence that The Challenge Foundation’s
holistic approach works and is making a difference in people’s lives.
“Seeing it come full circle—that they have these opportunities in
these schools, and then have done well enough and invested in enough
people to come back and be the graduation speaker—I think is really
inspiring,” she said”
Kenya McCullum is a freelance writer based in California.