Friends of recent Prairie Ridge High School graduate P.J. Whipson, who was accepted into the highly competitive Mercedes-Benz Elite Advanced Program in Jacksonville, Florida, are raising funds on GoFundMe so he can go to school there.
Courtesy of District 155
Whipson lost his father, Peter Whipson, to lung cancer in 1996, when he was barely 1 year old. His mother, Dolores, died of heart disease and complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2011, when he was a 14-year-old freshman at Prairie Ridge.
"My motivator is pretty much just my past life," said Whipson, now 20, of Crystal Lake. "It was pretty rough ... my mom being sick all the time. My brother and I were taking care of her. Things were tough with money and food. I don't want my family to deal with that."
Whipson has been working part-time at 3-D Bowl & Sideouts in Island Lake ever since. His older brother, Peter, now 25, was working and also studying at McHenry County College at the time of their mother's death.
"We just support each other in making it work," Whipson said.
With help from his career counselor, teachers and friends at Crystal Lake High School District 155, Whipson earned a full-tuition scholarship to Universal Technical Institute automotive trade school in Lisle.
UTI is a leading national trade school providing training for students seeking careers as professional automotive, diesel, collision repair, motorcycle and marine technicians. In 50 years, its schools have graduated more than 190,000 technicians, according to its website.
"To apply, the student had to do a video. It was based on a good work ethic," said Paula Steiner, supervisor of the College & Career Center at Prairie Ridge.
Steiner helped Whipson with the video. He made the cut as a finalist and winners were chosen based on the most Facebook votes for each video."
I was scrambling to get everyone I know to vote for him," Steiner said. "District 155 got behind him, all the teachers, students, family, staff ... all voting on his video. It was a really fun way for the community to support a kid who doesn't have parents to help him with anything. He's got the biggest heart. He is just dying to have a good job, get married, have a family and have a normal life."
Whipson was in the top 10 for number of votes received, she added.
The UTI scholarship is funded by the Mike Rowe Works Foundation, which supports students trying to get into skilled trades. Rowe is behind the popular Discovery Network television show "Dirty Jobs." The foundation has awarded more than $2.5 million in scholarships to schools nationwide.
Whipson will be graduating from UTI with a 3.9 grade-point average on Sept. 25. Only the top performing UTI graduates make the Mercedes-Benz elite program.
He was selected from among 400 students who applied for 128 available spots.
"This is a dream come true," Whipson said. "I was in shock and disbelief when I found out I was accepted. The interview was the most nerve-racking thing that I've had to do. Getting the Mercedes credentials, it's sort of like getting a bachelor's (degree)."
While Mercedes-Benz will cover the cost of the six-month program, Whipson is on his own for living expenses.He aims to raise roughly $6,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the cost of the move to Jacksonville and living there. A fundraiser also is planned from 1 to 4 p.m. Sept. 12 at 3-D Bowl & Sideouts, 4018 W. Roberts Road. The $25 charge includes bowling, appetizers, 50/50 raffle and a silent auction.
"I'm going to have to work, but I just need something to get me started," he said. "If not, I will make it work another way."