Scholarship honors memory of former Lincoln High American Indian student

Brenda Hoffman cared for Mike Epstein’s mother for eight years at a local assisted living facility until she passed away in 2011. Epstein was so grateful for the care she provided, he asked if there was any way he could repay her.

Yes, Hoffman said, you could be a TeamMates mentor for my son. 

Done, Epstein said.

“Brenda talked about my mom and my mom's commitment to education and supporting students. She then talked about her son entering high school and his need for a mentor in the TeamMates program,” said Epstein, a retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln special education professor who also directed the Center for Child and Family Well-Being. “To be honest, the experience was one of the most satisfying of my life.”

He mentored her son, Montoya Laravie, throughout his time at Lincoln High School. He kept in close contact with Laravie after he went to college and until he passed away in 2019. Laravie was a proud member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, so to honor his memory, Epstein has established an endowed college scholarship fund for American Indian students - primarily from Lincoln High - through the Foundation for Lincoln Public Schools.

Hoffman said she was “blown away” when Epstein told her his plans to start the scholarship.

“It is such an honor,” she said. “Education was very important to Montoya.”

The scholarship will offer $500 each year to a graduating American Indian student, with first preference given to Lincoln High students. The scholarship is renewable for three years.

“Investing in the potential of a young person changes the trajectory of their life in such a beautiful way,” said Wendy Van DeLaCastro, president of the Foundation for Lincoln Public Schools. “It tells the student they have something special to offer the world.”

LPS American Indian Youth Demonstration Grant Coordinator Barbara Buttes called the scholarship a “wonderful, unexpected gesture.”

“It brings pride, especially for our American Indian students, whether or not they personally knew Montoya,” she said. “Knowing that an American Indian student is memorialized with this scholarship can inspire our students and plant hope for them.”

Buttes had a personal connection to Laravie. Growing up, he spent many days and nights with his uncle's family, who lived across the street from Buttes. Laravie, his cousins and her grandsons grew up together, playing sports and learning about life. Laravie’s uncle brought the boys together on Thursday evenings to drum. 

“I loved those times because I could hear the drumming and singing and it brought me back into balance with the world where I live,” Buttes said. “Knowing that these young boys were learning their way gave me hope. Both of my grandsons mightily grieved when they learned that Montoya had gone. We reminisced about the years gone by and all the years of shared experiences. Montoya cared for his family and culture. This scholarship appropriately recognizes a young warrior who left his mark on the hearts of many.”

After graduating from Lincoln High in 2015, Laravie attended Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, where he earned his associate’s degree in 2017, made the dean’s list and was one year away from earning his bachelor’s degree when he passed away.

“Before he returned to Haskell every semester he and I would have lunch and go shopping for school and personal supplies for the semester,” Epstein said. “I traveled to Haskell a few times a year to talk with Montoya about being a college student and discuss strategies to succeed in college.” 

Laravie loved the outdoors and spent many late nights fishing and camping. Friends and family say he could always make people laugh and usually had a smile on his face. His goal was to return to Lincoln to serve as a role model for Native students.

“I believe that he would be honored to have a scholarship named for him to be directed to Native students from LPS,” Epstein said. “It would achieve a primary goal that he had established.”

The application process for the Lincoln High School Montoya James Laravie (Mato Was’aka “Strong Bear”) Scholarship will begin in the winter of 2022. For more information and to donate to the scholarship fund, please contact Gary Reber at the Foundation for Lincoln Public Schools:

Published: April 14, 2021, Updated: April 14, 2021