REACHing Higher with Community Support

By Brad McEwen

In a powerful scene that rivaled the nationally broadcast annual athletic scholarship signings that occur each spring on high school campuses around the country, five area 8th-graders—flanked by their families and surrounded by cheering students, school system leaders and community allies—got a chance to commit themselves to what will hopefully be one of the most important programs of their young lives.

It was truly thrilling for me to be one of those proud supporters, as I count myself fortunate to attend the ceremonies where Merry Acres students Atkin Figirggofel and Eric Taylor; Radium Middle students Bertha Galvan and Tyah Tutt; and Robert Cross student Joshua Paustian were celebrated as this year’s REACH Georgia Scholars.

While it’s certainly not unusual for Albany area students to receive scholarships, it isn’t every day that those deserving young academics are 8th-graders who still have the challenge of completing four years of high school ahead of them before they can head off to their college or tech school of choice.

Let that sink in for second; REACH Georgia just presented five Dougherty County 8th-graders with $10,000 scholarships to be used at Georgia institutions (some of which double or triple that amount) before those kids have even set foot on a high school campus.

Although that may sound strange, the decision to commit to students that young is really at the core of what makes the REACH scholarship unique and, I think, important to the future of Georgia’s deserving students. By having the scholarship recipients identified and selected before they finish middle school, the second and, in my opinion, most important phase of REACH comes into play.

At its heart, REACH Georgia is more than just an opportunity to present needs-based scholarships to Georgia students. It is a way to ensure that a certain kind of student has the support needed to meet the rigors of high school and be fully-equipped to enter post-secondary education.

Thanks to an awesome partnership between the state of Georgia, local school systems and private sector sponsors, each REACH scholar that receives the scholarship will also be assigned a mentor and academic coaches who will meet with the student on a regular basis throughout their high school journey.

The hope is that those volunteer mentors and coaches from within the community will effectively share their time and talents with students who might not otherwise have that kind of support, thus bettering their chances of future success.

“(The REACH scholarship) rewards students for self-accountability, promotes parent involvement and provides motivation and support; all factors that we know are critical in student educational achievement,” said Georgia Governor Nathan Deal after the program’s launch in 2012.

After starting with a pilot group that included five counties, REACH Georgia, thanks to the financial and mentorship support of local corporate sponsors, is now operational in more than 100 Georgia school systems, including Dougherty County.

Through a rigorous application process the area students ultimately selected for REACH were identified based on a variety of factors including academic achievement, overall attitude, behavior, social circumstance, and financial need, in order to pinpoint students who will benefit most by having the added support the mentors and coaches will provide.

As it was explained to AB&T when the bank was approached to join the partnership with the school system, the REACH program was presented as “an incredible financial incentive for middle school students who may be teetering on the edge of not making it.”

With a mission of such importance it really was a no-brainer for a partner like AB&T whose values are interwoven with those of its community to lend its support to such an important endeavor. And as the REACH process unfolded the power of that decision has only become more evident.

Due to the bank’s involvement in the program I was able to take part in what personally has been one of the most insightful exercises of my career. I’ve been able to see firsthand what the heart of the REACH program really is and why it can make such a huge difference.

A few weeks before they sat for the signing ceremonies, this year’s REACH scholars were merely candidates—chosen as finalists based on the application vetting process—and I was tasked with serving on the panel that would ultimately make the final selections.

Over the course of two days the seven-member team—made up of community partners and school system representatives—met with 20 finalists from the four area middle schools, getting to know a little bit about them and why they were deserving of the scholarships.

Through that process I was given a chance to interact with an incredible group of young people, all of whom impressed me. In our post-interview discussions—as the panel went about the difficult task of selecting the five scholars—the overwhelming feeling among the selection committee was that we wished there was a way to offer scholarship and mentor opportunities to every last one of them.

That desire was so strong that notion was still on the mind of panelist and Dougherty County Clerk Jawahn Ware days after the interviews were completed and the selections made.

“This was actually one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life,” Jawahn told me on the eve of the first signing ceremony. “Not hard in the interviewing aspect, but being able to select the best of the best. It was so hard. Discernment from God helped and I’m just so proud of these children.

“More than anything it makes me understand that I have to get more money to be able to provide some more scholarships.”

As difficult as the selection process was, however, there was no doubt that we had made worthy choices as we watched those students take the important step of signing the REACH contract and committing to the program.

Each of one of the scholars could barely contain their excitement as they accepted the challenge issued by DCSS Superintendent Ken Dyer and Assistant Superintendent Ufot Inyang, proudly saying, “I will,” when asked if they would maintain a 2.5 GPA or higher, maintain good behavior and attendance, meet regularly with their mentors and coaches, and attend REACH events in the coming years.

It was a wonderful feeling to watch how proud those students were when Dyer praised them for their efforts, reminding them of the magnitude of their accomplishment and assuring them that he and the rest of the community was committed to supporting their progress through school.

“That’s a lot of money to start your college career,” Dyer said of the $10,000 scholarship. “But you’ve got to get there first and I trust you will. The people that vetted you and graded you saw your potential as future high school students and college students and we’ll be with you every step of the way. It won’t be easy, there will be some challenges, but you’ll have support from people you don’t even know, don’t even see, rooting for you and supporting you.

“My advice is to talk to them, listen to them, take their advice to heart, and do the very best you can. And again, know that you will not be on this journey alone. We’re with you every step of the way. We’re rooting for you. And count me among your supporters. If you ever need any help from me, just let me know. My door’s always open to you and I’ll be there to help you reach further.”

With that statement Dyer summed up the essence of the REACH program, which harnesses the power of the entire community to help and support its most precious asset.

And that commitment seems well-made as it was evident at each of the signing ceremonies that the students were truly appreciative of the opportunity and the support.

“I feel good,” said Eric. “It feels like this can help me throughout the rest of my life. I was just so excited. You have to have supporters in your life. I feel like living in Albany, when we get supported, that can boost you up.”

Eric’s mom Katrina Tatum agreed, tearing up a little as she tried to express what the REACH scholarship means to her family.

“It’s an awesome feeling, especially knowing that we live in an area that’s poverty stricken and everything,” she said. “So it gives you a sense of hope and admiration for the (community) knowing they are here backing our kids 100 percent, giving them a chance to go to college and the extra support behind them to make sure they get where they need to go.”

As an associate of an organization that is having a hand in trying to positively change the lives of area students, I was nearly overwhelmed to see how much this honor meant to these students on so many levels.

“It’s a great thrill,” Atkin told me after making his commitment to the REACH program, which will hopefully put him on a clear path to become a prosecutor. “I’m happy that I made my parents proud, that’s the main thing that I’m happy about.”

For Bertha, the scholarship opportunity means she can pursue her dream of attending college at ASU to study forensic science.

Joshua said he intend to use the REACH opportunity to follow his dream of studying engineering at Georgia Tech, but more importantly to achieve that dream without creating a financial burden for himself or his family.

“I feel very excited about it that I am able to go to college without having a loan or any debt that I’d have to pay when I get out of college,” he said. “My mom felt pretty good about it too because she probably couldn’t help me much with that either since my mom and dad are divorced.”

Eric hopes to use the opportunity to study engineering while also becoming a chef, while Tyah, who plans to study biology at Fort Valley State and then veterinary medicine at UGA, joined her fellow scholars in viewing the REACH program as a true blessing that will open up endless possibilities.

“I just want to thank everybody for this opportunity,” she told me. “We’re in 8th grade so really it’s like, ‘Wow! Our dreams have come true!”

That I could play even small role in helping my company achieve that kind of outcome for deserving students like Atkin, Eric, Bertha, Tyah and Josh is the stuff of dreams for me too.

nnect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen