Prairieville— Jennifer deFrances’ job as executive director of The Ascension Fund is bringing her to classrooms around the parish these days, checking on the progress of grants awarded through the nonprofit agency.

DeFrances joined the agency in July after a 12-year career in real estate and commercial development, she said.

Teachers who won grants in August had to finish spending their money by Dec. 31.

The new round of the grant cycle started Jan. 14, she said.

The Ascension Fund was established in 1991 by the Rotary Club of Gonzales. The club helped to raise $800,000, which was placed in an endowment, deFrances said. The interest from that original fund is used to award grants to Ascension Parish teachers, board president Buddy Wells said.

The fund provided its first grant in 1992, and since that time has given more than 1,000 grants representing $1.2 million in awards to 30 area public schools and teachers.

Since the fund’s inception, Lake Elementary School has received $117,360; Donaldsonville Primary teachers have been awarded $70,107 and St. Amant High has seen an infusion of $75,622 in grant funds, she said.

The fund’s mission is to be “an instrument for private sector leaders to reward and inspire excellence in public education, by investing directly in the work of individual teachers and schools through grants for innovative ideas and programs in Ascension Parish public schools.”

Wells said the grants help teachers “do their job in the classroom despite tight budgets.”

“If we can help these teachers educate their children then we have a better workforce,” Wells said. “As a businessman, I believe it’s important to be invested in your community and The Ascension Fund lets me do that.”

Wells, an East Ascension High School graduate and general manager at All Star Ford/Lincoln/Mercury, is hoping to increase both the awareness of the fund and its bank account so more teachers can receive the grant awards.

DeFrances and Wells said the agency is working to raise $200,000 in pledges this year to bring the fund to $1.4 million.

In addition to $10,000 endowments, the board has opened its membership to allow small business to host one-time grants of $500 to $1,000, deFrances said.

“This way,” deFrances said, “more people can be involved in helping teachers and education.”

DeFrances works with an 18-member board to set goals and fundraising strategies.

DeFrances said the executive director position was available at the perfect time in her life, as she was looking for a job that would keep her close to home and her two school-aged children.

Her previous job required lots of out-of-town travel and her new job “keeps me close to home and provides me an opportunity to help my community.”

By helping to provide the money that teachers use to purchase anything from software to books, deFrances said she can see the difference the small grants make in the lives of the children.

“I see teachers struggling with what they want and what they can get,” she said. “These grants fill that gap.”

Wells recalled a visit to Carver Primary School a few years ago where he met children using learning tools purchased with grant funds.

“These kids came up and hugged me and thanked me,” he said. “It was the most heart-warming experience of my life and the best feeling in the world.”

New grant applications are being accepted through April for the 2013-2014 school year.

In coming weeks, in addition to reviewing paperwork and final reports from past grant recipients, deFrances will be working with principals to set up grant workshops for teachers.

“We want to give them all the tools they need to write successful grants,” she said.

In the last grant cycle, 92 grant applications were received and 42 teacher and school impact grants were issued. DeFrances is shooting for 125 applications this year and 50 grant awards.

In addition to the corporate and business fund drives, two fundraisers are held to support the fund.

The Rotary Club of Gonzales is selling tickets for its annual “Have a Steak in Education” dinner set for 6:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Gonzales Civic Center. Tickets are $100 a couple and can be purchased by calling (225) 644-8688.

Dates have been set for the “Ascension Idol” auditions, she said.

Auditions for the singing competition will be held March 15 and March 16, with the final competition set for May 9.

“The talent is unbelievable and the money goes to a good cause,” Wells said.