Barb James Memorial Scholarship honors lifelong learning and human dignity

Bernie Dehn established the Barb James Memorial Scholarship at the Grand Rapids Area Community Foundation after Barb James unexpectedly passed away February 13, 2014. Barb was committed to lifelong learning and validation of the importance of every human being.

The essence of the Barb James Memorial Scholarship

Everyone deserves a quality education, a place to call home, people to love and support them despite mistakes he or she has made, to be treated with respect and dignity, and to have a sense of belonging and acceptance regardless of their race, religion, income, gender, sexual orientation or cultural beliefs.

Bernie spoke about establishing the Barb James Memorial Scholarship and how “it helped me to overcome grief by having the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of people in our community, volunteering and passing on to everyone so they can be more aware of the needs in our community. I just want to help people,” says Bernie.

A few scholarships at the Community Foundation are considered “opportunity-based”. Opportunity-based refers to offering scholarships to applicants who have few-to-no other scholarship options. “Every year, we have applicants who really don’t fit into any specific criteria for a scholarship we currently administer. Those applicants are then placed into consideration for an opportunity-based scholarship,” says Sarah Copeland, Director of Grants and Programs at the Community Foundation.

Barb’s life: Lawrence Lake Liquor

PHOTO: Left-Right: Bernie Dehn and Barb James

Lifelong business and domestic partners, Barb James and Bernie Dehn established Lawrence Lake Liquor in 1991.

Located along Scenic Highway 7, Lawrence Lake Liquor (affectionately known as Triple L or LLL) is a popular destination for tourists. However, for year-round and seasonal residents, Lawrence Lake Liquor serves as the hub of community life in Lawrence Lake Township. Lawrence Lake Liquor is a place where friends gather, neighbors reconnect, and families celebrate milestones in their lives.

Paying It Forward

Barb and Bernie shared a mutual commitment of helping people in need and giving back to their community. They generously supported a wide variety of charities and nonprofits through charitable gambling (pull tabs) proceeds. Donations have been given to: local fire departments, township halls, schools, Second Harvest Food Shelf, GRACE House, and many other worthy organizations that serve community and people in need. Since 2003, Barb and Bernie have contributed more than $50,000 to causes near and dear to their hearts.

A meaningful life

PHOTOS: Barb James and Bernie Dehn fishing over the years

Barb James was devoted to her faith, family, and friends. She attended seminary at Assisi Heights (Rochester, MN) and later graduated with a B.A. in Education from the College of St. Theresa (Winona, MN). Teaching at public schools in Chicago’s inner city exposed Barb to the demoralizing effects of poverty on society.

Known for her humble, salt-of-the earth personality, Barb embodied selflessness and compassion. She routinely put the needs of others before her own. Barb always found a way to help friends and loved ones when they were feeling vulnerable and hopeless.

Barb loved living and fishing on Lower Lawrence Lake. She enjoyed getting together with friends, carving Diamond Willow walking sticks, camping, gardening, golfing, canning, her pets, organizing special events, and spending time with her large, close-knit family. She was a voracious reader who never left the house without her book bag in tow. Barb’s passion for literacy is still visible by the rows of books adorning the walls of the Triple L’s book exchange.

Over the course of 25 years, Barb and Bernie created a fun and welcoming environment at the Triple L, while building a legion of loyal customers and dedicated staff members who are just as much family as they are friends. Tragically, Bernie ​and members of the Lawrence Lake community suffered a devastating loss when Barb suddenly passed away.

Beyond opportunity-based

The Barb James Memorial Scholarship is unique and goes beyond just opportunity-based to consider applicants who have overcome significant barriers in their life and have a plan. “It’s amazing to me how the recipients of the Barb James Memorial Scholarship generally have the same type of answer to the question about what they will do if they don’t receive a scholarship. It’s always something such as, ‘I’ll have to get another job’, for someone who is already working more than full-time. Whether they have graduated from high school 10 days ago, or 10 years ago, these are strong people, determined to succeed,” says Copeland. Maureen Erickson-Robertshaw’s response was, “Don't get me wrong, I will find a way to do it even without the scholarship, but it would definitely be easier with the scholarship.”

Maureen Erickson-Robertshaw – giving back to community

PHOTO: 2018 Recipients of the Barb James Memorial Scholarship outside Lawrence Lake Liquors. Left-Right: Maureen Erickson-Robertshaw, Bernie Dehn and Hunter Doyle

Applicants need to provide two recommendations on their scholarship application. Lori Kangas-Olson, a prior work colleague writes about Maureen, “This applicant is a driven professional that is becoming a trustworthy and respected leader in the community. Her intelligence, intellect and ability to seek resources and answers is astonishing and well admired by her peers. I believe Maureen should be selected for this scholarship due to her drive and ability to perform at an exceptional level.”

Maureen beams when she talks about her son. “Nothing had ever made me as happy or as fulfilled as being a mother.” She also spoke about going back to school as a nontraditional student, “It was really hard to go back to school and apply for jobs after being a stay-at-home mom for ten years, but I made it through and got a job I love.”

One of the key parts of the Community Foundation scholarship application is called Your Story. Applicants can write anything they want to help evaluators get to know them and their situation. “There were two things that Maureen wrote in her story that really impressed me. One was about replacing fear with faith, and the other was about how even on her worst day, Maureen has always found something worthy of wonder. How wonderful if we could all have that outlook on life,” says Copeland.

Giving Back to Community

Maureen speaks about what giving back to community means to her. “Life is not perfect and through busyness we sometimes put off volunteering, but we do so at the detriment of ourselves and our community. Volunteering always gives back more to me than what I give to others. I never fail to learn something or get to know someone new. It is not enough to just tell my sons what not to do, I also want to actively show them what to do. Taking them with me to volunteer helps me reach that goal. Even small things help like making Valentines for a homebound neighbor or cutting a single mom's grass.”

Hunter Doyle – determined to reach his goals

Donna Hanson-Kaasa, Advisor/Teacher, Northern Lights Community School, wrote this recommendation for Hunter, “Hunter is extremely intelligent. He is an independent learner, does a great job presenting his knowledge in his own words, and demonstrates comprehension above his same age peers. Additionally, he has a lot of knowledge in technology and is my go to person when I am struggling in that area myself. In my opinion, if Hunter is given the opportunity to attend college, he will succeed.”

Aimee Love, School Guidance at Northern Lights Community School, wrote the second recommendation on Hunter’s application. Amie stated, “Hunter displays a great deal of passion regarding his interests. He has several natural gifts such as technology knowledge, public speaking, and creations in the musical arts. He has been resilient and determined to reach his goals. Hunter’s approachable personality makes it easy for him to connect well with others, making his goals even easier to obtain.”

“Everyone is familiar with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), but many people now speak about STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math). STEAM addresses the importance of also incorporating art into the educational mix. It’s a left-right brain thing – a more whole person approach. If you think about it, mixing the ability to be creative with technical skills, well, that’s awesome,” says Copeland.

Hunter has that STEAM thing going on. He plans to study IT Networking and Security at Hibbing Community College, and has focused on learning multiple musical instruments, in and out of school. Hunter says, “Music is one of many passions of mine but it’s by far my favorite. Music is a language that transcends speech. It is the language of love.”

Through Bernie’s efforts and the generosity of the Lawrence Lake community, more than $13,000 has been provided for the Barb James Memorial Scholarship Fund. While this is a terrific start, you can help. If you are interested in supporting scholarships for students who have overcome hardships and barriers and have the drive to succeed – beyond opportunity, visit the Community Foundation’s website at:

The Grand Rapids Area Community Foundation administers approximately 100 different scholarships, many of which are memorial scholarships. Anyone can donate to an existing scholarship at the Community Foundation.

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