Harold Alfond was a leading Maine leading philanthropist. Gov. Baladcci greets children at the announcement of the Alfond gift of $500 for every Maine child for College. Photo by Ramona du Houx

January/February 2008

By Ramona du Houx

“I challenge you to get a college education once you graduate from this wonderful school,” said Harold Alfond to students at the Good Will-Hinckley School for Boys and Girls during a dedication ceremony of a building he helped to fund last September. “In today’s economy there is nothing more important for you to do. I never had the opportunity to go to college, but times were different then. Now, if you want to succeed you have to get a college education.”

Alfond’s statement reflects who he was and the legacy challenge he left behind. He passed away at the age of 93, last November.

That challenge has come in the form of a gift of $500 to all newborn babies in Maine. Parents who open a NextGen account for their children by their first birthday will receive the $500 grant.

In 2006 Gov. Baldacci initiated the ongoing First Step Grant program, with FAME, where the state offers a $50 grant to parents for all newborns, to help pay for college.

“Harold had the desire to make sure every child in Maine gets a fair shake and a chance for a good life,” said Governor Baldacci. “The Harold Alfond College Challenge brings together the ideals that drove Harold’s lifetime of philanthropy and will serve to raise the aspirations and opportunities of countless Maine children.”

NextGen is the fifth-largest college savings plan in the country in which earnings grow tax-deferred and withdrawals are income tax free when used for qualified, higher-education expenses. The Finance Authority of Maine (FAME) will give parents NextGen 529 account information with the help of hospitals across Maine. FAME will help enroll the newborns and send quarterly reports to parents. Those materials will include how important a college degree is, how to increase college savings, and how to raise a child’s college aspirations, amongst other needed information.

The pilot plan will start in Augusta and Waterville at Maine General Health where 1,400 babies will receive Alfond’s gift. By next year the program will have expanded to the entire state and more than 14,000 babies will receive $500 from Alfond — totaling $7 million.

“Education is so important,” said Jennifer Rackliff, an expectant mother whose baby is due in a month. “I can’t imagine a greater gift than receiving a steppingstone to a college education.”

The Harold Alfond College Challenge is the country’s first statewide higher education grant program.

In an interview at Good Will-Hinckley, Harold Alfond said, “A community’s greatest assets are its children.” When the state’s leading philanthropist was asked why he donates so much to causes he responded, “I do it for the kids, they are the future. Sometimes all they need is a helping hand to get them on the road to realize their dreams. When I was growing up, others gave me a helping hand. It’s only right to give back.”

Alfond hoped that the families taking advantage of the Challenge Grant seed money would contribute additional funds. FAME estimates the $500 grant will grow to $1,924 by 2026. With additional family investments such as a $50 a month contribution to the child’s fund, combined with the $500 grant, would translate into more than $25,000 by the time the child turns 18.

“As long as they use that money before they reach the age of 28, the money is there for them. If they don’t use it, then the money [from the Alfond gift] reverts back into the pool for distribution to other children,” said Greg Powell (in photo at the right with Gov. Baldacci) chairman of the board of the Harold Alfond Foundation. “This ambitious program represents Harold Alfond’s deep affection for the people of Maine and his firm belief that every citizen in the 21st century has the right and responsibility to higher education.”

According to Powell, Alfond’s college grant idea started last summer when Alfond, vacationing with his family, looked out over Belgrade Lake, and asked, “What more can I do for the children of this state?”

His grandchildren were at play nearby, and he watched them as he pondered the question. At the birth of each of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren Alfond had started a tradition of giving the parents $500 with a simple message attached: “Here’s a gift to start you out saving for your child’s future.” Characteristically, Alfond decided then to give every Maine baby the same gift.

“Harold has opened a door to opportunity to tens of thousands of Mainers yet unborn. And by investing in our most precious resource, Maine’s kids, Harold has blazed a trail to Maine’s future prosperity by providing an incentive for Maine families to save for their children’s education. I am deeply moved by this breathtaking bequest to Maine’s people,” said Congressman Tom Allen in a statement.

The Harold Alfond College Challenge welcomes businesses and individuals to become a part of, as he put it, “Making Maine the leader in the nation for higher education,” by donating to the fund.

“I’m so proud of my father,” said Bill Alfond, a trustee of the Harold Alfond Foundation. “His life has been a shinning example for me. He’s a role model for Maine. He once said that his work wouldn’t be complete till ten years after his passing. He wasn’t joking.”

Alfond truly believed in the people of Maine and their potential to do great things, if given the opportunity.

“It’s our collective responsibility today to take care of our children. In the future, it will be their responsibility to take care of the world. Harold was dedicated to making sure they have the tools they need to be successful. I’m grateful to have had a long friendship with Harold Alfond. He committed himself to making sure every child, regardless of background, has a chance,” said the governor. “The people of Maine owe Harold a great debt of gratitude. He has made the world a little bit kinder and a little bit gentler for all of us, and he has challenged us to do better for ourselves and our children. Beyond everything he has done, that will be Harold’s legacy.”