Spirit of Giving Resonates

Students Honor One of Their Own

by Cindy Davis Meixel, writer/photo editor.

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Tracy GarisWith hammers in hand and heavy hearts, they crossed over the boulders at Ringing Rocks Park. As metal met stone, they pounded out sound and sorrow. Tears poured down, and laughter rang out. Theirs was a pilgrimage on the one-year anniversary of the passing of their daughter, sister and friend – Tracy Garis. A nature lover and hiker, Garis had loved this spot, set in northern Bucks County, just a half-hour drive from her hometown. Here, visitors traverse a 7-acre field of boulders, striking certain ones with metal hammers and basking in an ancient, acoustic mystery. The rocks ring like bells, echoing.

"It's one of the most impressive outpourings I've seen."

A similar energy and spirit of tribute resonated on the Pennsylvania College of Technology campus for the entire 2010-11 academic year. An unprecedented student fundraising effort led to an outpouring, from coins and $1 bills to four-figure checks establishing the Tracy A. Garis Memorial Scholarship. The final tally of $38,658 surpassed everyone’s expectations, as well as the $25,000 goal needed to endow the scholarship.

“I’m in awe at what happened on that campus,” said Ed Garis, Tracy’s father. “I can’t believe how hard everyone at the college worked. I think it was a reflection on Tracy and how she lived her life.”

Tracy GarisThe campaign’s efforts culminated in commencement ceremonies held May 13, in the Community Arts Center, with the official announcement of the scholarship’s endowment, followed by a posthumous diploma presentation to Tracy’s parents. Her mother, Cheryl Garis, expressed appreciation for all of the support given to the scholarship and offered a special nod to her daughter’s dental hygiene classmates, who stood among the standing-ovation crowd wearing graduation caps decorated in Tracy’s honor (many showing a pearly tooth capped with a halo).

“To all you dental hygiene girls out there: Tracy is with us today,” Cheryl told them. “She’s looking down on us, and I know she’s so proud of you all.”

In the audience sat an equally proud Gregory J. Miller, of Easton, the Penn College student who launched the scholarship campaign.

“It felt like ‘mission accomplished,’” Miller said. “We had achieved the scholarship, her parents had received the diploma, and Tracy’s name would live on in the Penn College community.’”

An avid hiker, Garis enjoyed visiting Hawk Mountain, near Reading. Photo courtesy of Abby Ward.Miller didn’t know Garis well, but he felt moved by the expressions of grief he saw pouring across the Internet in the days following her passing in a vehicular accident on June 4, 2010.

“Messages were flying all over Facebook that weekend,” Miller recalled. “So many people knew her. Everyone commented on how Tracy always had a smile on her face. There were so many stories about her. She had a big impact on so many people.”

Miller and Garis had grown up in the Bethlehem area, attended rival high schools and enrolled at Penn College in the fall of 2008. They had met just once, briefly, on campus; still, Miller felt compelled to create something that would last in her honor.

“Because she was from the same area where I grew up, I guess it really hit me as if, ‘That could’ve been me.’ So, I decided to do this for her,” Miller said.

Tracy A. Garis, fourth from right, joins her Resident Assistant colleagues welcoming students to campus at the start of the 2009-10 academic year. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.Within days of her death, Miller began moving forward with his plans. At the time, he was serving as vice president of internal relations for Penn College’s Student Government Association, so he contacted SGA President Adam J. Yoder for approval to investigate ideas. His search landed him in the office of Robb C. Dietrich, executive director of the Penn College Foundation, where he was briefed on scholarship options. Miller decided he wanted to try for the largest – an endowed scholarship – and he wanted to achieve it within a year.

“I tried to be realistic with him,” Dietrich offered. “I told him he didn’t have to accomplish it in just one year. Normally, we give people four to seven years to reach the $25,000 threshold.”

Still, Miller was determined. “I really felt this had potential,” he said, noting Garis’ connections on campus in various student organizations.

After obtaining permission to proceed from the Garis family in late September, Miller began working toward the goal.

Garis is among those honored with memorial
bricks in the college's Remembrance Garden. Photo by Whitnie-rae Mays.“Once he got the ball rolling, he was around our office almost on a daily basis,” Dietrich noted.

Some of the first funding for the scholarship arrived from Homecoming initiatives including registration fees for the Homecoming Car Show and proceeds from the balloting process for the Homecoming king and queen.

A pivotal moment in the early days of the effort came when Miller was given the opportunity to speak to a gathering of The Pillar Society, a core group of Penn College benefactors. His talk resulted in a $5,000 donation from a member and a significant confidence boost to all involved in the scholarship campaign.

Progress continued with numerous student organizations conducting fundraisers, from T-shirt and candy sales to collection cans and concerts. Among the more unusual activities rallying funds were a 24-hour rocking chair “Rock-a-Thon” and a “Cow Plop Bingo” contest staged on the Madigan Library lawn with the assistance of “contributing” bovines.

Momentum was spurred at key junctures with challenges presented by President Davie Jane Gilmour and members of the Penn College Foundation Board of Directors, who promised to match certain fundraising levels with personal gifts to the cause.

Throughout the year, the Garis family returned to campus to participate in some of the fundraising events. Their visits were filled with both pride and pain.

“My heart hurt because I wasn’t coming to campus to see Tracy, so it was very difficult, but it was also joyous,” said Cheryl Garis. “I was so proud of her, imagining the impression she must’ve had on people. It made me feel so good knowing how the students felt about her. Even people who didn’t know her were pitching in to help. So, it was an honor to see what everyone was doing.”

Ed Garis concurred: “I was so ecstatic seeing how hard everyone was working. So many times, I wanted to express my gratitude, but I was at a loss for words. I was deeply touched. It was a difficult year, but it was an amazing one, too.”

The benefit that pushed the campaign over its goal was a Celebrity Waiter Dinner, held in mid-April in Le Jeune Chef Restaurant on campus. Select faculty and staff served as waiters for the evening, serving up extra helpings of hospitality in the hopes of garnering gracious tips from their tables filled with fellow employees, students, and the Garis family and friends. Among the supporters were three groups that had played a significant role in Tracy’s life at Penn College – Residence Life, Campus Crusade for Christ and the Student American Dental Hygienists’ Association.

“I was really hopeful going into that night that we would take it over the top,” Dietrich recalled. “I felt there was a real potential that people would be generous once they were there, but the end result really blew me away when we were counting the tips.”

The evening brought in $3,546 in tips, pushing the campaign a couple thousand dollars over its goal one month ahead of schedule.

“It was an incredible relief,” Miller said. “I slept like a rock that night.”

As they looked back on the year, both Miller and Dietrich were struck by the campaign’s camaraderie and sense of community.

“It’s one of the most impressive outpourings I’ve seen,” Dietrich said. “It was amazing to see the sheer number of people who got behind it to make a small gift or organize an event or to buy a couple of squares in Cow Plop Bingo. There were many student organizations involved and many people who had no direct ties to Tracy. It had a totally different energy to it than when one gift is given to endow a scholarship. They both have the same financial impact on students who receive the scholarships, but this had that grass- roots, community effort to it.”

Miller said he especially enjoyed getting to know many of Tracy’s friends and family and, through them, the feeling of getting to know Tracy, as well.

“All the people who knew her were my motivation to keep going, to keep pushing,” Miller said. “Tracy was definitely someone I wish I had known, and in a way, I feel I got to know her.”

Miller, who will serve as SGA president for the 2011-12 academic year, said he is pleased Garis’ name will live on at Penn College.

“I always tried to explain to students who would ask, ‘How would this benefit me?’ and I’d tell them, ‘You’re helping to remember a student who went here, and you’re helping other students to come here, as well,’” he said.

The Tracy A. Garis Memorial Scholarship will be awarded annually to a dental hygiene student who is active on the Penn College campus. The first scholarship was distributed at the start of the 2011-12 academic year.

Campus remembers Tracy

Read details about the activities that supported the Tracy A. Garis Memorial Scholarship at PCToday. To donate to the scholarship, use the online form.

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