“Willy the Plumber”: Helping the Children of Utah Prisoners Find a Brighter Future

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Education is a key factor in raising happy and functional children.  This is a fact recognized by most, from the elite to the working poor to the incarcerated, people realize that getting a quality education is a worthwhile pursuit and encourage their children to obtain as much education as possible.

However, reality can be harsh when considering the education of the children of those incarcerated, especially for non-violent “drug” offenses, including ridiculous cannabis laws.

One Utah man has taken it upon himself to create a foundation designed specifically to award scholarships to children throughout the state who have been affected by the War on Drugs.

Karl “Willy” Winsness, the program administrator, was himself the victim of a “no knock” warrant served in his Salt Lake County home in 1988. In Winsness’s words,  “anyone can be the subject of a no-knock warrant and have their lives, homes and families destroyed – NO ONE IS IMMUNE.

Winsness was convicted of shooting a County Deputy involved in the no-knock warrant incident, and subsequently served 17 years in the Utah State Prison system. He admits he almost feels lucky for the ordeal as he was able to survive, unlike other local victims of deadly Utah “no-knock” warrants such as Matthew David Stewart (who allegedly “committed suicide” after shooting an officer during a “no-knock” warrant) and Todd Blair (shot and killed while holding a golf club).  Winsness believes that giving to other children in lieu of being able to raise his own while he was incarcerated is the perfect opportunity to personally pay it forward.

“These kids are the ‘Forgotten Victims of Crime’ as they haven’t done anything wrong, but are punished for their parents’ bad choices or bad luck,” says Winsness.  “None of us can change the past but we all can do something about today and hopefully change the future.”

Karl Winsness ("Willy the Plumber") outside of the Utah State Prison

Karl Winsness (“Willy the Plumber”) outside of the Utah State Prison

For Winsness, creating scholarships for the children of incarcerated parents is his way of changing the future. “I don’t have deep pockets,” Winsness explains, “but I do have heart, faith, and persistence, and while it may not look like it, I think that I have lived a pretty lucky, charmed and blessed life and have a couple of great daughters.  They are the main reason for doing this scholarship”.

Winsness’s first goal is simple: to have the scholarship itself act as an incentive “a seed to succeed.”  The program was designed to guide these children toward a chance to break the cycle of incarceration, and know that they can lead positive lives by making positive choices. The scholarship program strives “to provide not only some financial help but possibly some direction (too often, too little is expected of these kids and thus the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree),” as noted on Winsness’s website, WillythePlumberScholarship.net.

Eligibility for the scholarship is determined by the applicant’s parents’ incarceration and arrest record in addition to financial need and school performance.  These children are learning that there is a future for them: by taking responsibility for obtaining and maintaining good grades, staying out of gangs and away from drugs, the scholarships offer the opportunity achieve some assistance with college expenses.

Winsness is working in cooperation with The Community Foundation of Utah, a 501(c)(3c)non-profit organization. Scholarships are awarded in the amounts of $1,000.00 ($500 for Skilled Trades) and the number of scholarships are directly dependent on the amount of donations.

The program also  offers prisoners the opportunity be be involved with fundraising, with two yearly fundraising drives created by the Utah inmate community. Winsness hopes to hold several fundraising events this summer, and is working closely with ladies at the Women’s Facility on a special project for this July.  Obtaining corporate sponsorship is also a goal for the program as the more money raised, the more scholarships can be awarded.  They are also planning an annual Charity Run  to show those children (and inmates) that there is also community support for them and the scholarship program.

People like Karl Winsness are outstanding examples of Utah citizens who have been victims of the unholy “Drug War” and have learned to overcome the violence and hatred directed toward them and create something worthwhile and positive with their time on Earth.

Online Application for Willy the Plumber Scholarship