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McDonald's minority scholarship program omits American Indians

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska - This past summer Ahtna Atathabaskan tribal member John Smelcer decided to stop at the local McDonald's for a burger and came out thinking that he found a good scholarship lead for his daughter who is nearing high school graduation.

Tucked away near the nutritional literature that many McDonald's patrons probably would rather not see was a brochure regarding scholarships offered by the philanthropic arm of the burger behemoth known as the Ronald McDonald House Charities.

On the brochure was information about applying for minority scholarships and since his daughter is Indian, Smelcer said he never doubted that this would apply to her. However, upon further research into the minority scholarships, Smelcer found out American Indians are not among the groups that are eligible to receive the award.

"Of the four officially recognized minority groups, African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics, only American Indians are not eligible," said Smelcer.

Smelcer wrote several letters to the McDonald's corporation and eventually received a reply confirming that American Indians are not included among potential recipients of the scholarship.

In a letter dated Dec. 13 provided by Smelcer, Debbie Stone, an official at Ronald McDonald House Charities wrote that American Indians do appear on lists of data collected nationally for people in need. However Stone wrote that the charity "must prioritize how we spend the dollars that we have for scholarships."

Stone goes on to say that the eligible minority groups still require a "tremendous level of assistance."

In another letter, dated Dec. 17, Ronald McDonald House Charities Director Susan Kerr wrote that local chapters of the charity "feel we have the scholarships programs that that fit the majority of their constituents needs right now."

McDonald's spokeswoman Julie Pottebaum said that the scholarships are arranged through local chapters of the Ronald McDonald House Charities and it is they who assess the specific needs for their communities.

"We rely on our local chapters in communities in which we do business," said Pottebaum.

One of the local communities that McDonald's does business in is Albuquerque, N.M., which has a significant American Indian population. The local Ronald McDonald House Charity Director, Sandy Mann used to work directly with American Indians through her philanthropic work.

Mann pointed out her local chapter administers a housing program in which half the recipients are American Indians. She claimed her office has suggested a separate American Indian or more general scholarship fund to the Ronald McDonald House Charities headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, whom she said have "taken it under advisement" though Mann is hopeful for at least a general scholarship in 2006.

Mann said it would be impossible for her office to do a separate American Indian scholarship because her staff is too small and already has their hands full with various other projects.

With help from the Oak Brook headquarters, the Albuquerque office has signed on with the scholarship for Hispanics called HACER, which Mann said is the longest standing ethnic-specific scholarship offered through the Ronald McDonald House Charities. Mann pointed out it was nearly two decades before the scholarships were also added for African Americans and Asians, which consequently are recent additions.

Though the scholarship programs originate at the local level, as it did in the case of the HACER, which was originally the brainchild of a local McDonald's franchisee in Texas, it is still only with the backing of the Oak Brook headquarters that the scholarships are able to function.

The Oak Brook office, which was the hometown of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, still handles all the necessary paperwork and processes the applications for HACER and the other two ethnic specific scholarships.

Smelcer has no problem with giving a larger amount of the scholarship grant to other minority groups since they constitute a larger number of needy students because of larger populations, he wonders why they cannot perhaps direct at least a small portion of their scholarship budget to American Indians. In terms of prioritizing needs, Smelcer pointed out that American Indians are perhaps the neediest of all the groups.

For example, he pointed out that only 2.1 percent of American Indians attend college and that American Indian households average about $12,000 a year less than whites. According to the U.S. Census Bureau only African Americans, as a whole, earn less than American Indians and Alaska Natives, who earn about $33,000 annually, roughly equal to that of Hispanics.

Meanwhile Asians, one of the groups eligible for the Ronald McDonald House Charities minority scholarships, are the top ethnic income earners at about $54,000 in average annual income between 2000 and 2002, though this does not reflect income disparities between the various groups of disparate people of Asian national origin.