June 29, 2020
The Erie Community Foundation hosts an annual scholarship reception to provide educational funds to local students. This year’s reception was cancelled due to COVID-19, but the students will soon receive their awards. More than $725,000 will be dispersed from 118 scholarship funds held at The Erie Community Foundation, totaling 550 awards.
A newly established fund will provide a scholarship in honor of Joseph Michael Kulka Jr., who, at the age of 28, was murdered in a gay hate crime in 1982. The Joseph M. Kulka Jr. Scholarship for diversity leadership was established within the LGBT Community Endowment of The Erie Community Foundation. The scholarship is intended to be awarded annually to a person pursuing a four-year college program and who has given of their personal lives to improve awareness and understanding of diversity in the Erie County community. The recipient need not be a member of any particular segment of society, only having demonstrated leadership in this field with expectation that their efforts will continue in college and adult life.
A native of Sharpsville, PA, Joe Kulka was the first in his extended family to graduate from college. A mental health counseling major, he received his degree from Gannon and was devoted to those with learning disabilities. He worked at Sunland Center in Orlando at the time of his death and always made his clients number one in his life.
Kulka believed in the worth of all people, no matter their race, faith, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identification or intellectual attainment. Bob Ploehn, initial benefactor of the scholarship, said, “The oldest of nine children, Joe was a leader and mentor. He loved Erie while at Gannon and the Barber National Institute. He would be smiling humbly while proud to be remembered as helping local students become leaders in promoting community diversity.”
For the inaugural year, the Joseph Michael Kulka Scholarship will benefit two students with an $800 scholarship each. Congratulations to Adria Urbanowicz, a Mercyhurst Preparatory School graduate who plans to attend Fredonia State University of New York to earn a BFA in Musical Theater, and Riley Nicholson, a McDowell High School graduate who will attend Penn State University for Mechanical Engineering.
“If we deny someone the opportunity to be true to oneself, we are telling that person we don’t see them,” said Urbanowicz. “This breaks society into stereotypes and causes division among people.” Nicholson said, “As a member of Exposure, we tackle global issues such as LGBTQ+ rights. I learned that not everyone looks the same, loves the same or believes the same. Our job is not to judge but to accept.”
When Ploehn, formerly of Erie and now residing in Florida, was asked why he chose to support a scholarship fund at The Erie Community Foundation, he said, “Erie is on the verge of great change and growth, and I wanted to invest in a community that is thriving and needs support.”