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Foundation aims to expand opportunities for families of veterans

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A scholarship fund created by the New Jersey Bankers Association to help the dependents of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan is trying to find more people who might need financial help to go to college, or attend vocational or technical school.

The association's education foundation met today in New Brunswick with representatives of Rutgers University, which has received donations from the foundation to provide supplemental financial aid to veterans attending the state university.

Robert E. Stillwell, who chairs the New Jersey Bankers Education Foundation, said the mission of the fund is being expanded to include disabled soldiers, as well as spouses and dependents of those who lost their lives in fighting abroad. Since it was started in 2005, the fund has dispersed $85,000 in tuition aid to two military widows and in donations to Rutgers to help veterans buy textbooks.

Stillwell said the foundation has $300,000, and could easily help more people: "Each year we send out a request to our members and they have been very generous. If there were a need, the bankers would step up and make sure we had the funding we need."

Kara Connelly, 27, said she was 23 when her husband, Brian Michael Connelly, died in Iraq. The bankers foundation covers all tuition expenses not paid by the Veterans Administration, and she graduated from Monmouth University with a psychology degree, and in May will complete a master's in school counseling at Monmouth.

"Without them, I really don't think it would have been possible," she said. In addition to the financial help, she said, James Meredith, secretary of the New Jersey Bankers Association, "is kind enough to call me and ask how I am doing and if I need anything. I just hope we can get the message out if there is anyone else who needs help. Sometimes it can be hard to accept help, but this is something that has made a positive difference in my life."

Stephen G. Abel, director of the office of veteran and military programs at Rutgers, said there is a need for additional financial aid to supplement the funds provided by the federal government to veterans and their dependents. He said veterans with less than three years' active service can have 60 percent of the tuition, fees, books and housing paid by the Veterans Administration; after three years, 100 percent is covered. He said most of New Jersey's National Guard and reserve members don't qualify for the 100 percent benefit.

Rutgers business major Tom Krause, a Marine veteran, said his veterans' benefits provide $1,000 a year to buy textbooks. "But I try to expedite my stay here by doing fall, summer and spring (courses), and that can add up to $2,000 a year for books," he said. He thanked the bankers for providing financial aid that "keep our minds on our books, and not the cost of them."

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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