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Gail Willis Shares How Tragedy Inspired Her to Make an Impact

Gail & Shawn

Gail & Shawn

Gail Willis ’95 had one goal when she started a scholarship in memory of her late husband and Grand Valley alumnus, Shawn. She wanted to help students like Kaylee McWilliams ’16 pursue their dreams.

“Shawn was incredibly generous and had such a big heart,” she says. “He had even written out plans to create college funds for our nieces and nephews. Education was very important to him, and if we could help someone go to college, we would.”

Shawn was a lawyer full-time, but still made it a priority to teach as an adjunct professor at the School of Criminal Justice. Six months after their wedding, Shawn was tragically killed in a car accident in September 2004. His love for the Grand Valley community inspired Gail to create the Shawn D. Wiersma Criminal Justice Memorial Endowment.

“He was so generous, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to give back,” Gail adds. “I know that’s what he would’ve wanted.”

Kaylee was the 2015 recipient of the scholarship. Her motivation for pursing criminal justice was also personal: “My dad was a correctional officer for 26 years. He would come home and share his stories, and that fueled my passion for a career in criminal justice.”

Kaylee interned at Muskegon Probation in the summer of 2015 and says the experience “affirmed my career path and my program decision.” She credits Grand Valley with opening up these opportunities to her.

“Grand Valley is the best place. I’m so happy with my decision. I feel at home here.”

She says receiving the scholarship encouraged her to continue seeking additional opportunities, and reinforced her desire to return to graduate school – “hopefully at Grand Valley!” – to pursue a career in probation or parole.

“I need to continue to be the person that they chose,” Kaylee states, adding, “It’s very motivating.”

Seeing how the scholarship is impacting students has fueled Gail’s desire to continue helping and to uphold Shawn’s legacy.

“I wish that everyone could see how important it is to support your community,” she says. “There are so many kids who wouldn’t be able to go to school if these scholarships didn’t exist. That little bit of money really makes a difference for them.”

Kaylee adds, “It really means a lot to me. Thank you, thank you so much!”