What’s the Big Idea?

On a fall day a couple of years ago, a group of Brenau students found themselves on a long car ride to North Carolina with one of the university deans, Bill Lightfoot. En route to participating in the social entrepreneurship session with representatives from other colleges and universities in the Appalachian region, they brainstormed things they could do to make the world better. By the time they arrived, they had a big idea, and they spent even their spare moments at the workshop fleshing out the idea. They knew that public schools serving economically disadvantaged children see a dramatic learning drop-off in summer months – partly due to idleness and partly due to poor nutrition. During the school year, many of those children participate in subsidized breakfast and lunch programs at school. During the summer, the kids do not have access to those programs – or to activity-based learning – and, literally and figuratively, starve their developing minds. As the children get older, the learning drop-off escalates year after year and, by the time they reach middle school or high school, they’re already so far behind that there is little hope for finishing their educations.

RISE Summer CampThe Brenau students, representing a cross-section of academic disciplines, came up with a way to attack the problem at the brain and the belly. The big idea was to involve a multi-agency consortium of private and public social service and educational organizations in a summer camp program for the kids that would staunch both growling stomachs and atrophying minds. The idea evolved as RISE – Real Interactive Summer-learning Experience.

In the following spring, the group presented its proposal before the Appalachian Ideas Network confab at Berea College, a more benign environment than the Shark Tank television reality series – but a competition nonetheless. The Brenau team won first place.

Brenau University Dean of College of Business and Mass Communication Bill Lightfoot addresses students and parents during the 2013 RISE graduation.
Brenau University Dean of College of Business and Mass Communication Bill Lightfoot addresses students and parents during the 2013 RISE graduation.

Lightfoot, who is dean of the College of Business & Mass Communication, says that the idea stage typically is where this sort of thing ends. The Brenau group, however, returned to Gainesville on a road paved with something more than good intentions.

All they had to do to convert the big idea into something palpable was get buy-in from the university for a summer camp for younger grade school kids that would be both educational and fun; pick up support from the Gainesville Housing Authority, which could promote the program to residents in its low-income communities; enlist support from the Gainesville City Schools system, which, among other things, might be needed to provide transportation for students; convince the Georgia Mountains Food Bank to provide lunches and snacks; enroll help from the Hall County Health Department’s THINK mentoring program for young people in the community, a good source for high school students who could solve their own summer doldrums issues by working as camp counselors; and they had to raise enough money to pay other expenses.

AND, THEY DID IT!

The group fell a bit short on its fundraising goals – another typical problem for entrepreneurial ideas. But the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation, which supports the Appalachian Ideas Network and extends its interest in social entrepreneurship to close to 40 colleges and universities, also technically provided that last $2,800 the group needed to get started. In the past, the foundation usually limited its philanthropy to scholarships at Brenau and other schools. However, an earlier change in foundation policy enabled Brenau to divert a portion of its Sullivan-funded endowment allocation to subsidize Brenau students and local high school students to work in the camps and manage the program.

RISE Graduation
Zayia Young, left, and Zyriea Tripp look over their diplomas during the RISE graduation.

The summer camp – limited initially to first, second and third graders – graduated 18 kids in that 2012 pilot program. Those young graduates demonstrated both learning retention and learning advancement when they started school in the fall term.

That first group of budding social entrepreneurs from Brenau was as eclectic as it was enthusiastic. Members included financial manager Zuhra Doost, a native of Afghanistan who graduated in 2012 with a degree in accounting; curriculum development lead Elizabeth Stephenson, an education major from Wrightsville, Ga., who subsequently transferred to another institution; and Pauline Atem, from Gainesville, Ga., a 2012 occupational therapy graduate. Julissa White, a 2012 mass communication graduate from Lithonia, Ga., was not part of the original team, Lightfoot says, “but she stepped in to help us win the business plan competition at Berea College.”

Iben Nielsen, a native of Aabenraa, Denmark, who now works on a social entrepreneurship project in Tanzania, came to Brenau as an undergraduate Rotary Scholar for a year and then returned as an M.B.A. candidate. As a graduate assistant, she led the development of the RISE program in the first year and played a key role before completing her studies in 2012.

Ana Lopera speaks to the graduating RISE children during their graduation at the Davis Street Community Center, 850 Davis St., in Gainesville. “I wake up everyday and I can’t wait to go to work. This has made me fall more in love with teaching and made me realize that this is what I’m called to do,“ said Ana Lopera.
Ana Lopera speaks to the graduating RISE children during their graduation at the Davis Street Community Center, 850 Davis St., in Gainesville. “I wake up everyday and I can’t wait to go to work. This has made me fall more in love with teaching and made me realize that this is what I’m called to do,“ said Lopera.

Last summer the Brenau students were back at it again with a program that doubled the number of graduates and added a grade. Next year, says Ana Lopera, a senior early childhood education major who has inherited management of the program, “we hope to go to more than 100 and maybe go to fifth grade, too.”

Others on the 2013 team include seniors Megan Pinter Smith from Sugar Hill, Ga., and Hannah Norwood from Lawrenceville, Ga., and junior Hannah Bailey from Flowery Branch, Ga. Lopera will be busy hiring others to participate in the program in the summer of 2014.

There’s interest from one charitable organization in the community in making RISE a regular funding cause, and there has been some interest from a national organization in taking the show on the road – using the Brenau model to start similar programs in other communities.

Lightfoot says that he and College of Education Dean Sandra Leslie and their faculty provide some oversight for the program “for continuity.” But he is quick to add that this is a student-run and student-managed show. Like a football team preparing to graduate a talented cadre of quarterbacks and receivers, the RISE program tries to enlist students early who can build experience for later leadership.

FOUNDATION FLEXIBILITY

“Entrepreneurs can have a lot of wild ideas, and this was a wild idea from a lot of people,” says Lightfoot. “If the Sullivan Foundation had not put out the challenge, though, we would not have had the impetus to develop the idea, let alone to do it. Sullivan deserves a lot of credit.”

Rebecca Camarigg, program director for the Sullivan Foundation in Oxford, Miss., downplays the foundation’s role. The key to its success, she says, has been spreading out the mix of students involved to provide balance and sustainable continuity, and engaging multiple agencies and organizations into the program – credit for which, she says, accrues to the students.

“I’m glad we could be a cheerleader,” Camarigg says. “RISE is such a good program that started with such a great idea. It is amazing to me what the students were able to accomplish.”

At least from one Brenau student’s perspective, any accomplishment was part of the pure pleasure she derived from the program herself.

“When we were dividing into classes at the beginning of the term, some of the kids said, ‘Miss Ana, I want to be in your class again,’” Lopera recalls. “I loved hearing that. It was very fulfilling. It made me think that maybe, in some way, I touched these lives.”

This video, produced by the Gainesville Housing Authority, takes a look at the hard-work and education happening through the RISE program. Click here to find out more about RISE on the Gainesville Housing Authority’s site.

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