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Banking on KC – Jeremy Lillig of Bright Futures Fund

 

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Jeremy Lillig, the executive director of the Bright Futures Fund and longtime area philanthropist. Jeremy's here today to talk about how the fund is making private education opportunities more equitable, as well as some of the other organizations he's involved with and how they are making an impact. Welcome, Jeremy.

Jeremy Lillig:

Thanks for having me.

Kelly Scanlon:

Jeremy, you wear a lot of hats when it comes to community service. In fact, from what I know about you, philanthropy is really an ingrained part of your life. What inspired you to choose a life of service?

Jeremy Lillig:

I would say first and foremost, it was my education. I was educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph and by the Christian brothers who are two very service-oriented religious orders, and just my family. My family was always very thoughtful and generous to those around them, to their local community. And really just felt inspired and called to carry on that legacy as well as that of which I was taught by.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. So when I say it appears that it's an ingrained way of your life, it really is. From the time you were a young person, this was all you knew. And as I mentioned during the introduction, you are the executive director of the Bright Futures Fund. What is that? Tell us about it.

Jeremy Lillig:

Well, the Bright Futures Fund is an organization in its 35th year. It's an organization that basically works to eliminate financial barrier for families that choose Catholic education. And an offshoot of that is to basically break the cycle of poverty through education. So we used a hand up model. And we provide scholarships to families that choose the Catholic education, help them through the system so that they can graduate and be successful on their own and break that cycle of poverty. And in our tenure, we've done so very well. We've given out over 34,000 scholarships, invested over $90 million in the inner city, and helped out over 17,000 families.

Kelly Scanlon:

And this is on the Missouri side, correct? Or is it metro wide?

Jeremy Lillig:

It's Missouri side. We do serve some people from Kansas maybe that might come over, but it's the diocese of Kansas City St. Joseph, which is the upper northwest corner of Missouri. 27 counties.

Kelly Scanlon:

And what age group of students do you serve? Is it from kindergarten through high school, through college?

Jeremy Lillig:

Well, we're expanding a bit in the near future, but right now it's currently four years old through career.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, okay. So when you say career, so it does go through college.

Jeremy Lillig:

We do have one partnership with college. And we're adding more as we go along.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us a little bit more about how it works. How is it funded? If someone's interested in your scholarship programs, how do they go about finding out more information?

Jeremy Lillig:

Absolutely. So we have two different programs primarily that families can access for resource scholarship. One is our traditional legacy model, which is our two Bright Future schools, Our Lady of Hope in Westport and Holy Cross in the Northeast. And those are funded primarily through traditional philanthropic means. We have events and appeals and so forth. And then our other program is new this year, it's called the Most Scholars Program. And it's the result of a recent legislation in Missouri for school choice. We are one of the six educational assistance organizations that are participating in that. And what that does is it uses tax credits that people can purchase for their Missouri income tax, we take those funds, and we're able to award those to families who qualify amongst two different pathways.

One is through if the student has an IEP, a special needs student, and the other is through an income requirement. And the income requirement is in two-fold. One is 100% of the free and reduced poverty guidelines, and the other is 200%. So for the maximum amount you can earn in order to qualify, for example, a family of four has 103,000. So if they make less than 103,000, they qualify. And they can attend one of our schools and receive $6,375 a year in order to attend that school. Once they qualify, they're locked in through 12th grade. So if you enter into kindergarten, you're essentially receiving a $85,000 scholarship.

Kelly Scanlon:

That's incredible. How many schools participate in this? Do all of them in the diocese participate?

Jeremy Lillig:

You have to be in a geographical area of 30,000 or more, or a county that's been approved. So 26 of our schools qualify.

Kelly Scanlon:

So tell us about the tax credit. Can corporations apply for that, or is it strictly individuals? And what is the value of the tax credit?

Jeremy Lillig:

Well, absolutely. It's a really wonderfully written program. So individuals, corporations, S-corps, all of those qualify. And you can go to brightfuturesfund.org and you'll see on our homepage a form to access through the Missouri Department of Revenue. It's a 100% tax credit for up to 50% of your obligation. So for example, if you owe $5,000 on your Missouri taxes, you can purchase as many credits as you want, but you can use up to 2,500 of those for that year and it's a 100% credit. Any credits you purchase, you have up to five years to spend. So a very generous program, lots of opportunities for folks to help support us in many ways. And the impact is immeasurable.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us about the impact.

Jeremy Lillig:

Well, I think of an example. I think of a civil servant who may have wanted to go to private school. But unfortunately, our civil servants aren't always paid at the top dollar. And so this is a great program for them to be able to access a private education they should have the choice for. Or if you're a young family that's not reaching your income potential yet, you have maybe a five and a three-year-old. You apply to this program, those five and the grandfathered in three-year-old are going to be set through 12th grade. So what a relief to that family to be able to have these funds to make the choice that they want to make. And this applies to all private schools, so it doesn't have to be the Catholic schools. I'm obviously concerned about the Catholic school since that's where I work for, but there's many options around the state. If you want that kind of education, if that education fits your family model, this is an amazing opportunity, and really to carry through and set you on your path for success.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's talk about some of your other volunteer and philanthropic endeavors. You obviously from a very young age, the role models in your life modeled lives of service and of charity and giving back. What are some of the other things that you do besides the Bright Futures Fund?

Jeremy Lillig:

So I often say I'm the executive director to the Power of Four. So I'm the executive director to the Bright Futures Fund. Also, the Endowment Trust Fund for Catholic Education, which is endowments for all of our Catholic schools. I'm also the executive director of the Catholic Community Foundation, which Country Club Bank is a partner in that. And it's grown very successfully. And then I'm also the executive director of Stewardship and Development for the entire diocese. I'm kind of, if you will, the chief fundraiser for the diocese. I'm a playwright. My degree's actually in theater, and so I have a non-conventional path into development and non-profit work. But when I was in high school, I had a presentation by a Christian brother named Brother Lewis from the Catholic Worker House, and talking about the homeless that they serve at that institution, and it inspired me a lot.

And so when I went to write my senior thesis in college, I decided to write a play. I didn't want to use somebody else's just because why not? And so I said, "Well, I can write a play." And so I harken back to that inspiring experience. And I went down and did a lot of research of different homeless organizations, primarily at Catholic Worker, interviewing people who were in that situation. Not necessarily homeless, but just in poverty. And I did about 250 interviews and I wrote composite characters kind of in the categories that I saw that I was seeing the different kind of representations or manifestations of poverty, and wrote a play called Whispers From the Streets. It kind of took off more so than what I thought would be a senior thesis. So it's now been produced over 36 times. Not internationally yet, but all over the country. And it's raised over $2.5 million for homeless services.

Kelly Scanlon:

That's incredible.

Jeremy Lillig:

Yeah.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, what a feat.

Jeremy Lillig:

Yeah, it's really exciting. Yeah.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, congratulations on that. Another highlight of your career is associated with the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tell us about that.

Jeremy Lillig:

Yeah. It was kind of one of those fate moments, but I was working with the Friends of Chamber Music at the time. We saw a real popularity in interdisciplinary concerts, and so the Kauffman Center was opening, and we kind of had this idea, or I kind of had this idea of this collaboration potential with the Kauffman Center. And they hired me, commissioned me to write piece similar to the style of Whispers From the Streets, which was kind of a living documentary. And so I spent two years researching Darwin and the theory of evolution. People who like classical music also like science a lot, so it kind of was a perfect marriage. And so we have this wonderful asset in Kansas City, the Linda Hall Library.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh yes.

Jeremy Lillig:

And I spent many a time there, which was awesome. I actually held a first edition of The Origin of Species, which was incredible, yeah. They have first edition Galileo. It's just unreal what they have.

Kelly Scanlon:

So many jewels there.

Jeremy Lillig:

Yeah. So I wrote this piece. It was an interdisciplinary piece with a choir pianist, a string quartet, and three actors, one of which many know, well, all of the actors you probably know. But one in particular, Gary Neal Johnson, who plays Scrooge for the Repertory Theater, he played Darwin. And Kathleen Warfield, who often plays Mrs. Scrooge, was Mrs. Darwin. And Cinnamon Schultz, who was a teacher of mine, professor of mine at Avalon, actually, Kathleen was too, she was a narrator. And so we had this projections and these 40-foot screen of all of the different pictures and so forth from Darwin and the music and how the music played into his life. And we covered this stage at Kauffman with a giant map of his expedition of the Galápagos.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, fun.

Jeremy Lillig:

With the old red line that you'd see in Indiana Jones movies. So it was a really, really cool experience, and it was the first thing there. However, opening that space was also kind of a challenge because we'd go to plug in something and be like, "Oh, they forgot to put the outlet in." So being the first weekend, there was quite a challenge, but an awesome, awesome experience and one I'll never forget.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right. So you were the first show.

Jeremy Lillig:

We were the first production there, yeah.

Kelly Scanlon:

That is just incredible. That's wonderful. What are some of the ways that you use your experience in these areas? Because you're a painter too.

Jeremy Lillig:

I am, yeah.

Kelly Scanlon:

How do you use those for good, those two talents? How are you using them for social good?

Jeremy Lillig:

Well, I think what it comes down to is what I kind of see as artistic response. So social justice has been something that's been a part of my education. But also, how is one a responsible citizen in the world? And so using those talents to do good. As a painter, I enjoy, it's kind of how I unwind from having four non-profits that I run. So I use that talent, if you will, to paint. And I donate those to auctions for people to auction off. It's a way for me to give philanthropically as well as financially, and a way for me to exercise my talent and keep that creative bug going. So it's really kind of a pleasure to do that, yeah.

Kelly Scanlon:

At the end of the day, when you reflect back on your life, how would you characterize what motivated you the most and what made you feel most alive?

Jeremy Lillig:

I would say that it would be using the gifts and talents that I have in order to serve others. I see myself really as a servant leader. That's what fulfills me and drives me. But even more so, it's the freedom of generosity and giving.

Kelly Scanlon:

I like that. The freedom of generosity. Talk about that a little bit.

Jeremy Lillig:

It's a realization that takes a lot of work, but it's the notion that being able to give something freely to another person and acknowledging the fact that you're still a part of that gift. So it's kind of more rewarding than getting a gift, in all honesty. So I get a gift and it's like, oh, well, this is great. But to give that gift, you give it freely to that person, you enrich their lives, but you also enrich yourself because you see the impact that it makes on that person. And it's just this incredible freeing experience once one reaches that kind of understanding. I still have work on it that I do every day, but it's just incredible.

It was inspired to me through Dorothy Day, who is a really famous kind of social service person. She's on her pathway to sainthood and the Catholic faith. But she talked about it and her kind of life balance about how she was fulfilled in that. And it was so inspiring to me and explored it more, and really just kind of worked on it in myself to see the beauty of what giving to another person can give you. And it's just incredible. And it's freeing in so many ways because you're not tied down as much to the material. I mean, you can still enjoy material things, but just knowing that the work you do and the things that you give both material and not material can impact others is just such an incredible experience.

Kelly Scanlon:

Jeremy, thank you so much for all you do, for all the ways in which you give. Kansas City is obviously a better place for that. And thank you so much for your time today.

Jeremy Lillig:

Oh, thank you for having me. It's been a great pleasure.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Jeremy Lillig for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Jeremy says he is driven by the freedom of generosity to do the work of the Bright Futures Fund and to live a life of philanthropic giving. The freedom of generosity. Think for a minute about what that means. Quite simply, the more you give away, the more you have come back to you. And therefore, the more you have to give. Whether it's financial donations, volunteering, leveraging your talents for social good, or simply offering a smile. Interestingly, scientific studies agree those who practice generosity enjoy unleashed freedom, better health, and more joy. Choosing to give brings opportunity, happiness, and bright futures to others while improving your life too. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.

 

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