Immersed in culture
By Kris Leonhardt
STEVENS POINT – A Portage County scholarship program is working to provide an awakening of Polish culture among area youth.
The Stevens Point Dozynki Scholarship is conducted in conjunction with the annual Dozynki Harvest Festival and immerses the students into the Polish American community.
“Part of what is requested is a story about Polish heritage or a discussion with their family members of what their Polish heritage means. And a lot of times, the applicants for the scholarship had said that the first time they’ve sat down with family members to hear the hidden stories…,” explained Trish Mrozek, planning committee member.
“We’ve gotten thank yous back from the people that have been the recipients. And they say, ‘this was the first time I ever got to sit down with grandpa to find out about my Polish heritage. I was really impressed with what they went through to get to this country, and then maintaining those traditions and those family characteristics that are important to them,’” added Leon Ostrowski, also on the planning committee.
“And it was really an awakening of their heritage and it’s sort of a renewal if you will. They say, ‘Wow, I didn’t really look at life in that particular manner,’ and kids don’t normally think about that at that stage.
“And some are some very unique stories. So, there’ve been a lot of neat, neat stories that came together, where the kids just learned so much from their grandparents.
“And then I had some recently come back. They said as a result of the child being interested in filling out this application, I had to do some research as a grandma and grandpa to teach my kids because they’re asking me about it. And of course the parents are providing a lot of input to; so then they said, ‘well, all of a sudden grandma found out some neat stories about their family.’
“I had one case here where the girl’s grandfather always wore long sleeve shirts, and she could never understand why he just wore long sleeve shirts, even in the middle of summer. And come to find out when he was taken prisoner in Poland, he had a number put on his arm by the Germans. And, he was always trying to hide that because if he got discovered with that when he escaped from the German concentration camp, they would have killed him had they seen that number on him. So that was covered. And then, he was embarrassed about when he came into the United States. So, he totally maintained that coverage.
“This (other) girl was doing her research, and she found out and discovered that there was this doctor in Poland that studied the miners that worked in the coal mine in Poland and the miners that worked in the salt mines. And, the salt miners had very pure lungs and no problems at all; the coal miners had severe problems with silicosis and black lung disease. And, what they really discovered is the healing effect of the salt in the mines – how healing this was – and now it’s become a very big business where you buy these salt lamps and these sorts of things people have been their house. Well, that was where that came from, because it really is a health benefit.”
“It was interesting that she did the research in that particular aspect of history and so to speak ‘discovered an old story,’” Mrozek added.
Applicants are required to write the 500-word essay about someone of Polish heritage who has inspired them or about their own Polish heritage.
But the immersion into the culture doesn’t end with the application process.
“And what has happened in the past is the recipients of the scholarship and their families attend. And then the recipients of this scholarship, we have a number of people that work with them to dress them in Polish authentic attire. And then they help in the kitchen; they end up helping to put on the event of the food being served. So, it’s not only that they are awarded the scholarships, but they are being asked to attend and serve. We immerse them back into the Dozynki Festival, so that they understand the meaning of the festival,” Mrozek explained.
The students are also taught traditional dances during the festival.
Eighteen scholarships – three $1,500, five $1,000, and ten $500 – are awarded to high school juniors and seniors through the program.
“The goal is to encourage them to go on for additional education after school,” Ostrowski said. “And, say some can’t make it; they maybe want to take a break, do some traveling after high school, or if they go in the service, we’ll hold that open for three years. So, they can claim that at a later date.”
Through the years over $150,000 has been awarded.
Skyward comes on board
“We’ve always had plenty of support to do this over the years. When it first started out, it must be a dozen years or more ago, we had just three scholarships. We awarded those three scholarships and some of the (sponsors) happened to be in the crowd…and they said, ‘how many more applications did you get?’ And, I said, ‘well, we probably had a dozen or whatever that number was, it was probably 18.’ And, they said, ‘well, why don’t you give all of the others one.’ They were so impressed by the background of those individuals that were the winners,” Ostrowski said.
“We have now been funded infinitum in the future by the Skyward Foundation. The Skyward Foundation is going to fund the scholarships this year and far into the future.
“As long as we are operating this program, they are going to be there to fund it for us.”
Scholarships will be awarded on Sept. 18, during the 2022 Dozynki Harvest Festival. Deadline to apply is Sept. 6.
For more information on the scholarships, visit www.polishheritageawareness.com.