Once a heroin addict living on the wrong side of the law, Karl Winsness has turned his life around. Now he wants to help vulnerable children do the same thing.
When Winsness's home was raided by the police in 1988, he shot at one of the officers entering his home without realizing who it was. The mistake landed him in Utah State Prison for 17 years, and he had a lot of time to reflect on his life behind bars.
While he was in jail, Winsness - who goes by "Willy" - watched his daughters struggle financially and emotionally. He calls his innocent girls the "victims of his bad choices," and it made him realize how many other children across Utah were also paying for their parents' mistakes.
“The children of inmates are the forgotten victims of crime, and it really bothered me," he told People. “Their dad or mom isn’t there to help with homework, to buy their first car or anything else. With the family income cut in half, these kids have a difficult road.”
When he finally got out of jail in 2004, Winsness got a job as a plumber and moved on with his life. But he kept thinking about how he could help children like his own. The unlikely idea he finally settled on has changed lives ever since.
It's called the Willy the Plumber Scholarship, and it's a college fund unlike any other.
To receive money from the Willy the Plumber fund, kids need to prove that one of their parents is or was in a Utah prison.
They also need to submit an essay, have good grades, and stay away from crime and drugs, but helping the children suffering while their parents are behind bars is the charity's main focus. And since 2011 it's been a "saving grace" for more than a dozen students.
Maycie Barnhart, who graduated with a teaching degree after winning Willy's scholarship, says the plumber changed her life. "I’ll forever be grateful for his giving heart. Without his help, I don’t know how I would have afforded to start college," she said.
Winsness puts $3,000 of his hard-earned cash in the fund each year, but it also receives private donations. Even prisoners donate cash from their jobs behind bars to help cover the costs. Chosen students receive $1,000 to start their education, or $500 if they're already in college.
Now in it's 6th year, the charity is stronger than ever, and so successful that Winsness had to give the Community Foundation of Utah control of the fund, because it was getting too big for him to handle alone.
“These kids just need a hand up to do better in life than their parents did," he says. "I’m not a philanthropist, but I look at it this way: When you see somebody broke down on the side of the road, you don’t keep on driving. You get out to help.”
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