Buzz Thomas did the math, and it just made sense. A community can invest $30,000 for 30 students to attend college or pay $30,000 to house and feed one inmate.
“We could send 30 kids to college for what it cost to house one inmate for a year in Blount County jail,” the Maryville attorney said during a June 17 press conference announcing the creation of the blountAchieves scholarship/mentoring program.
Sharon Hannum, vice president of the Blount Chamber Foundation, will spearhead the initiative to raise $50,000 to pay for 50 graduates to attend Pellissippi State Community College for two years. Hannum will also lead the effort to recruit mentors for the students. The students would be required to volunteer eight hours of their time each semester to an approved community service project.
Hannum hosted the June 17 meeting at the Chamber announcing the creation of blountAchieves. The program is modeled after KnoxAchieves, the initiative that offered Pellissippi State Community College scholarships and mentors to Knox County students.
In its first year, 300 students completed the requirements of the Knoxville program and were accepted at Pellissippi. KnoxAchieves is starting its second year. Thomas, Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale and PetSafe founder and CEO Randy Boyd shared how the program can work in Blount County.
Thomas said the idea for blountAchieves started at the Martin Luther King luncheon as participants were discussing King’s vision and how it relates to educational opportunities. They realized the challenge crossed racial lines, Thomas said. “A lot of students just didn’t have the funds to go to college and were stuck in the community unemployed or under-employed,” he said.
“Think about that. We first of all know, this is not about charity, it is about investing in the future of Blount County,” he said. “We know that communities with the best workforces win the economic struggle going on around the world. It moved from a conversation about change and justice to a conversation about assuring our economic future.”
Ragsdale said the KnoxAchieves program is simple. “There are a lot of people who give money and a lot give time. You need both. KnoxAchieves is about people willing to step up and personally give of their time,” he said.
The program started in July 2009 when Ragsdale asked Boyd to help him jump-start the KnoxAchieves program. “It’s off to a good start. We have 14 schools involved. We went to our high schools’ seniors and said, ‘If you graduate from high school, we want you to have the chance to go to college and have the funding, one way or the other, to get there,” Ragsdale said.
Ragsdale said as they started the program, they realized the students they were going to be able to help were the ones who graduated but didn’t have the grades to get a Hope Scholarship and didn’t the money to pay for college.
“Where their life was headed was not in such a great direction,” Ragsdale said. “Most of those folks we would see later, floundering in the community, not because of a lack of aptitude, but a lack of assistance. We wanted to help those folks.”
Boyd said when Ragsdale shared the vision of what KnoxAchieves could become, it was a ‘Pearl Harbor’ moment. “When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the president said, ‘We’ve been attacked. We have to take action,’ not many people said, ‘This isn’t a good time for me.’ It’s a call to action. You can’t say no to the need, because it is so great and so obvious,” he said.
Boyd said he and Ragsdale first spoke about the program was in July of 2009. “In August, I called some friends and formed an informal committee. Within 30 days, we raised $2 million, and within 60 days, we recruited 170 mentors,” he said. “We decided to test the program by offering scholarships to 500 students. By December, we had 497 applicants. By February, we had 400 who did their college applications. By fall, there were 300 people in school who wouldn’t have gone to college otherwise.”
Boyd said the significant part of the program is the mentoring. “We have 172 mentors,” he said. “We think it is maybe the most critical thing we can give someone. Most kids need someone to give them guidance.”
Boyd said the third element of KnoxAchieves is they require students to also give back by volunteering in the community.
“If the community supports them, they should have to give back to the community,” he said. “We require each student to give eight hours, so we got 2,000 community service hours, and, hopefully, we have students who learned to give back.”
Boyd said Blount County could do the program in much the same way as Knox County did. He got the ball rolling with a $5,000 pledge to the scholarship fund.
“At most, $50,000 a year would cover the program. With 10 investors giving $5,000 a year for four years, you have the program for covered,” Boyd said. “I have a cabin in Townsend, so, as a part-time citizen, I’ll be one of the 10 investors. We need nine more, and then we recruit the mentors.”
Alcoa, Inc.m and Sun Trust Bank also made $5,000 pledges during the launch.
Hannum, who chairs the MLK committee and the Chamber Foundation, will spearhead blountAchieves through the Blount Chamber Foundation. “I’m fired up about this,” Hannum said. “It is not just another scholarship program.”
All recipients of the blountAchieves scholarships must: submit a completed application by deadline, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form by February of each year; complete the American College Test by April of each year. Apply to Pellissippi State Community College by April of each year; register for classes by June 1 of each year; carry a minimum of six credit hours; maintain a 2.0 GPA; work closely with a blountAchieves mentor; complete the approved eight-hour community service project per semester and attend all scheduled blountAchieves meetings.
The program will provide the opportunity for high school graduates to receive up to $2,000 annually for community college tuition. Students can receive the money for two years or four consecutive semesters.
The total scholarship amount will be determined after all other sources of scholarships and financial aid have been awarded, and the money will be provided directly to the college.