Building Bridges to Brighter Futures Through Education
The City of Passaic is home to more than 70,000, with nearly one third of those being youths under the age of 18. Nearly a quarter of households are single-parent with no father and the median household income is about $31,000, compared with nearly $72,000 for the state as a whole. The violent crime rate is well over twice the rate of New Jersey statewide.
For many of these young people, optimism can be hard to find. While the teachers and administrators of Passaic High School are committed to providing the youth of the city with the best education possible to position them for success after graduation, moving on to higher education is often challenging due to the economic constraints so many of them face.
While the Passaic Optimist Club has been supporting and raising money for youth causes since 1949, in 2012 the club founded the Passaic Optimist Friend of Youth Foundation as a recognized 501c(3) nonprofit. The Foundation drives the mission of the Optimists Club to bring out the best in Passaic students and help them realize their dreams and ambitions. The Passaic Optimist Friend of Youth Foundation raises funds for and awards scholarships to worthy youth, based on financial need, academic achievement, student athletics, and/or contributions to the community and their peers. In 2022 the foundation awarded more than $74,000 in scholarships to Passaic High School students, renewal scholarships to students in college and grants to athletic programs and civic organizations that serve the youth of Passaic.
George Illenye Scholarship Fund
George Illenye was a son of Passaic. Born in the City his first residence was on School Street. The family moved to Garfield, but George remained a member of the Passaic Boys Club where he participated in the Junior Optimist Club. While a member of the Boys Club, he was selected the 1966 “Boy of the Year”. During and after college, he worked at the Passaic Boys Club eventually as Assistant Director and as Camp Director at the club’s Camp Ocawasin in West Milford. In the 1980s, George began a 30-year career as an educator in the Passaic school system. He taught math at Passaic High School, and Computer Technology at Lincoln Middle School. He was also a very active coach in the district, and served as the girls’ basketball coach, a football coach, and a softball coach. Born with the gift of a “coach’s voice,” his booming commands and encouragements could be heard on even the noisiest playing fields. George was also an exceptional swimmer. As a Water Safety Instructor, he trained hundreds of lifeguards at the Boys Club, Camp Ocawasin and the 30 years he was beach director at Fayson Lakes in Kinnelon. George was also an active member of the Passaic Optimist Club and an officer of the Education Association of Passaic.
Harold Ferguson Scholarship Fund
Harold Ferguson graduated Passaic High School in 1975 after serving as a captain of the football team and all-around athletic stand out. He also worked in one of Passaic’s canning factories to be able to afford attending Jersey City State College. Ferguson died tragically in a car accident in 1977. Twenty-eight years later his friends and members of the Passaic Optimist Club founded this scholarship in his memory to provide financial support to student athletes to help them achieve their dreams of attending college or trade school. The Harold Ferguson Scholarship Fund also funds activities that support the Passaic High School football and baseball programs.
Hank Opalka Scholarship Fund
Hank Opalka was a longtime active member of the Passaic Optimist Club. In 1990 the Club awarded him a Life Membership Award for his dedicated service to the youth of Passaic. Opalka was a dedicated teacher at Passaic High School, as well as Manager of Summer Employment Programs and Director of the Boys and Girls Club and Worldwide Educational Services. The Hank Opalka Scholarship was created in 2009 and is funded with proceeds from the Club’s annual golf outing and private donations. The Hank Opalka Scholarship is awarded to youth who demonstrate the same commitment to education and community as did Opalka.
Bobby Owens Scholarship Fund
Bobby Owens was a Passaic native who dedicated all of his adult life trying to better his community through service to youth. His passion was trying to make a difference in life by helping female youth in athletics. Bobby started the first Passaic organized girl’s recreational basketball and softball teams. He used his personal funds and time in building the girl’s program. He was relentless in his efforts.
Bobby was employed by the Passaic Boy’s and Girl’s Club as the Program Director. During his tenure as Program Director, Bobby continued to enhance the Passaic girl’s athletics program. He later was recruited by the St. Croix Boy’s and Girl’s Club in the Virgin Islands as Executive Director. Bobby Owens was a devoted member and past President of the Passaic Optimist Club. In his memory, Passaic Optimist Club created an annual scholarship in his name to memorialize the high ideals and standards by which Bobby Owens lived. This scholarship is awarded annually to a Passaic High School female athlete who best exemplify the ideals and standards for which Bobby Owens lived.
Steve Cerdan Memorial Scholarship
The community of Passaic and the Optimist Club of Passaic celebrates the life and legacy of educator, Steven Cerdan, through a new scholarship in his memory. Family, coworkers, friends, and loved ones will continue to work to keep alive Steve’s dedication and tireless efforts as an educator, a mentor, and a friend of the youth of Passaic. In partnership with the Cerdan family, the Optimist Club has created a new Steve Cerdan Memorial Scholarship which award at least four $1,000 scholarships annually to deserving Passaic High School graduates in Steve’s name. Please help us celebrate the good works and memory of Steve Cerdan by making a donation to the Steven Cerdan Memorial Scholarship fund.
Gerard Arellano Memorial Scholarship
Gerard Arellano grew up in Passaic and dedicated his talents to the students and athletes in Passaic schools. As a Coach and Educator, Gerard believed that team sports, most specifically basketball, provided a multitude of student lessons — teamwork, dedication, and determination to name a few. The Passaic High School Junior Optimists (Octagon Club), together with the Arellano Family, honor Gerard’s memory and aim to build on his legacy through an endowed scholarship which will be awarded to deserving Passaic High School graduates who share Gerard’s passion for basketball and commitment to educational growth. Please help us celebrate Gerard’s memory and the impact he continues to have on Passaic’s student-athletes by supporting this scholarship.
Each year the Foundation awards a number of general scholarships to youth who are academic achievers and demonstrate a commitment to the community through service projects. This dedication to both education and community embodies the mission of the Passaic Optimist Club and the Passaic Optimist Friend of Youth Foundation.