Purpose Prize

Marc Freedman Portrait

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‘I Want These Girls to Know They Have Limitless Possibilities’

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Gwen Johnson is the founder of Mamaw Mentorship in Eastern Kentucky and one of 10 awardees of the CoGen Challenge to Advance Economic Opportunity. Watch for interviews with all 10 of these innovators bringing older and younger people together to open doors to economic...

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In March, we released our latest report, What Young Leaders Want — And Don’t Want — From Older Allies, summarizing what 31 Gen Z and Millennial leaders had to say about working with older people to solve pressing problems — aka “cogeneration” — and how it can be...


Virginia Donohue

Purpose Prize Fellow

My ‘Aha!’ moment came in 1998, when I was 52 years old. I was buying dorm room bedding for Nick, who was in a program for chronically homeless youth. I had helped him get into one of the best music conservatories in the country. I was CFO of a computer distribution company, but for eight years, I had volunteered at a homeless shelter in Fulton, NY, assisting kids like Nick with the college application process and fees, campus visits and essentials like bedding.
Nick turned to me and said, ‘Because of you I am going to have my dream. What’s your dream’ What’s your passion’ If it’s not the life you’re living, what steps are you taking to change it.”

His question inspired a revelation. Helping kids like Nick was my passion.
In 1999, I quit my corporate job and found On Point for College to help marginalized young adults – refugees, homeless youth, kids who aged out of foster care – go to college.

  • 4,600 youth enrolled in 219 colleges in 15 years 

  • Nearly 800 graduates, almost all first-generation, low-income minority youth 

  • 160 mentors – most over the age of 50 – drove over 190,000 miles in 2013, connecting youth with colleges


For 18 months, I worked out of the trunk of my car. Because of my CFO experience I knew how to set up a new company, diversify sources of funding, budget, supervise employees, negotiate and plan. That first year I helped 26 kids enroll in college. Today our 27 employees and 160 volunteers counsel 6,000 youth every year.

Our approach is novel because we focus on older youth, age 17 to 29, many of whom feel stuck in low-wage jobs. Ninety percent are first-generation, low-income minority youth. A third have no parent in the picture.

We reach out to them in Boys and Girls Clubs, settlement houses, homeless shelters, GED sites, refugee schools, housing projects, libraries and soup kitchens. We help them with essential basics, like admissions and financial aid applications and fees, dorm deposits, backpacks, textbooks and transportation. In the last year alone, our mentors – most older than 50 – drove students 190,000 miles to and from college.

So far, we’ve helped more than 4,600 students enroll in 219 colleges Nearly 800 have graduated. They’re architects, lawyers, doctors, firefighters, teachers, bankers, nurses, accountants and counselors. Our program has been replicated in 10 community centers in New York City and Utica.

I used my savings to launch On Point for College when I left my corporate job 15 years ago. But the joy I feel today when someone walks across the stage to get their diploma is easily worth a million dollars.