National Honor Society member Joey Wright will study electrical engineering at Old Dominion University in the fall. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)
If you saw Joey Wright on the Downtown Mall, you probably wouldn’t give him a second look. Just shy of 6′-tall, brown-haired, and wearing the ubiquitous teenage uniform of jeans and a North Face fleece, Wright looks like any other 18-year-old. Take the time to engage him in conversation, and you’d be impressed by his good manners. “Yes, ma’am,” he says with a slight Southern accent when asked if he’s excited about graduating from Charlottesville High School next month. A football and lacrosse player, Wright is a National Honor Society member who smiles frequently and easily and looks you in the eye when he says he’s going to study electrical engineering at Old Dominion University in the fall. What you wouldn’t see is that Joey Wright’s entire life has been a financial struggle.
He lives with his mother, a waitress who earns $2.13 an hour before tips. The pair is close, but he also has a good relationship with his father, an employee at Portsmouth’s Naval Shipyard, where Wright hopes to find a job one day.
This coming weekend, Joey Wright will collect on a promise made to him 12 years ago when, in the fall of 2000, local businessmen Chris Poe and Jeff Gaffney “adopted” Wright—and every other member of his kindergarten class at Belmont’s Clark Elementary School.
Through the I Have a Dream Foundation of Charlottesville, Poe and Gaffney pledged to provide Wright and his classmates with the tools—tutoring, mentoring, counseling, summer school, camps, and enrichment classes—to help them graduate from high school. Students who earned diplomas, said Poe and Gaffney, would be guaranteed the equivalent of in-state public school tuition (currently about $12,000 per year) so they could attend a college, university, or an accredited vocational school.
“It still hasn’t completely set in,” said Wright, who went four-for-four in college acceptance letters. It also hasn’t been easy, but he knew the moment the first “big envelope” arrived in the mail that “it’s been worth it.”
Wright and 45 of his co-“dreamers” will graduate from high school in the coming weeks. Five more are working on GEDs, while another five, who repeated first grade, are on track to graduate next year. Four other students finished high school a year early. All but two of the 62 dreamers will receive a high school diploma in the next year. Compare that to the state graduation average (89.9 percent), and the graduation rate of those whom the Virginia Department of Education deems “economically disadvantaged [high school] completers” (81.8 percent). Ninety-three percent of the dreamers will pursue some type of post-high school education.
Birth of a dream
Chris Poe wasn’t much older than Joey Wright when he was home from college one weekend, and half paying attention to an installment of the long-running CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes.” When a piece about New York City entrepreneur Eugene Lange, who started the national I Have a Dream Foundation, came on, Poe perked up. “He’s on to something,” Poe thought when he learned that Lange, during a 1981 speech, spontaneously promised a class of poor, Harlem sixth-graders college tuition if they stayed in school and graduated. At the time of the broadcast, Poe “didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” but he filed the information away, hoping to “one day be in a position to try to pull something like that off.”
Fast forward several years, and Poe, now married, a father, and a financial advisor at Northwestern Mutual, began surveying friends, community members, and educators about Charlottesville schools where the children were most in need. Every single person, he recalled, said Clark Elementary, which in the late 1990s—prior to the Belmont housing and restaurant boom—had the highest concentration of poverty in the city, with about 80 percent of its students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches. But before he ran his idea past a single public school official, Poe did some homework of his own, and spent the better part of a year “vetting” the I Have a Dream Foundation. “If I was hitching my wagon [to it], I wanted to make sure it was on the up-and-up and good people were involved.”
In early 2000, Poe made his pitch to then-City Schools Superintendent Bill Symons, who didn’t waste any time in bringing the plan to Art Stow, the principal at Clark.
“My initial reaction was that this is too good to be true,” Stow recalled. And then he thought: “What’s the catch?”
But, he said, “I trusted my superintendent,” who was comfortable with Poe and his vision for I Have a Dream Charlottesville. Good thing, because Stow, now Red Hill Elementary’s principal, had a son, Ethan, in the kindergarten class that was about to be offered the deal of a lifetime.
“It was a miracle,” said Stow, who gets choked up at the memory. “I knew the families so well, and knew that they, like every other family, love and adore their children.” The program gave those families both hope and opportunity, Stow said.
Jeff Gaffney (left) and Chris Poe are about to make good on their promise to pay for the college education of an entire class of Clark Elementary School Students. (Photo by John Robinson)
Once he’d decided on an elementary school, Poe’s next step was to find a partner. Enter Jeff Gaffney, the current chairman and CEO of Real Estate III, who at the 1999 National Association of Realtors convention heard Colin Powell speak about the “importance of business people getting involved in the lives of at-risk youth in the towns and villages where they lived,” Gaffney said. “I was really motivated by that message. It stuck with me, and when I came back to Charlottesville, I started looking around for places where I could help.” A month later, he heard Poe on WINA radio talking about his recently launched I Have a Dream program.
Gaffney, 47 and the father of four, called Poe to tell him he liked what he was doing. Then he asked how he could help. “I thought I could be a board member or something,” he said. But Poe had other ideas. “He put his arm around me and said: ‘We’re going to do this together,’” Gaffney recalled.
That is how, shortly before the start of the 2000-2001 academic year, Gaffney and Poe found themselves calling or visiting the homes of dozens of strangers. Since most of the dreamer families didn’t own computers, it fell to the pair to make telephone or in-person contact to let everyone know about the first I Have a Dream informational meeting, which ultimately attracted 11 people, representing seven or eight dreamers. The parents were dubious.
“They were naturally skeptical. I’m sure they didn’t believe us, and they assumed that after a year or two we were going to leave town,” Poe said.
“Are you kidding me? What do you mean, you’re going to pay for my son to attend college?” was what Maria Rice, Joey Wright’s mother, thought when she heard about I Have a Dream Charlottesville.
Like Principal Stow, she initially considered the offer too good to be true. A single parent whose son has long witnessed her struggle financially, Rice’s voice began to shake, and she was overcome by tears when she recalled, years later, that the two men were dead serious when they made their offer, which has been funded over the years through mostly individual donations, as well as money from the Geismar Family Foundation, United Way of the Thomas Jefferson Area, the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, the Junior League of Charlottesville, and Bama Works.
“Jeff and I have never had limitless resources, and we were never able to write a $2 million check,” said Poe, who recently turned 48 years old. “We’re just two working guys who have to get up every day”; two guys who had to “beg, borrow, and steal” to support their vision. They haven’t done it entirely on their own, though. “A community of people; a ton of them” have written checks—including some for six-figures—and volunteered their time over the years.
When the program was newly up and running, thanks in large part to a $175,000 grant from Toyota’s U.S.A. Foundation that came after “some creative marketing” was used to convince the organization that Charlottesville is a Washington, D.C., suburb, Poe and Gaffney decided to schedule another parent meeting. This time there was food. And a moon bounce, face painters, and a clown.
“If we could get the kids to come, the parents would come too,” Poe said. The family parties continued over the years, and at each event “we would explain what we were doing, and slowly but surely, they began to trust us. Second grade, third grade, fourth grade, we kept coming back.” When there was a transition—Beth Shapiro, the project’s original coordinator moved, and Erica Lloyd came on board—“we were still around.”
“Sit down with people and break bread, and they eventually come to realize that you’re not a snake oil salesman; that you’re not doing something crazy; that you’re going to do it every day for 12 years,” Gaffney said.
It took a while for that to sink in, he said, but over time not only did the pair convince dreamer parents of their sincerity, they also sold grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. “Extended families would come to the parties, and we’d eat and have amazing conversations and get to know each other.”
The real turning point occurred at a Pantops steakhouse gathering when the kids were in middle school. As Poe updated the parents on the status of their children’s college accounts, “one hand shot up,” he said, and a mother demanded to know exactly how the money was being invested. At first, the successful financial advisor was stunned by the question.
“But I thought about it for two seconds, and realized that it was a great, transitional moment,” he said. “They were now invested in the outcome of the program and wanted to know what was happening. It was kind of an ‘aha’ moment for us and for the parents. They were finally believing.”
Jesse Watson wants to return to Charlottesville and run his own company after he receives an accounting degree from Ferrum College. (Photo by John Robinson)
As they got older, dreamers like Charlottesville High School senior Jesse Watson began to believe too. Compactly built with a cautious attitude and a sparkly stud in his ear, Watson said the longer he was in the program, the more he came to appreciate the opportunity.
“It was a chance to better myself. When I knew I’d have help, I actually wanted to go to college,” he said. He also knew he had to “do the homework. And steer clear of trouble.”
An admitted loner who “was kind of slack,” Watson will attend Ferrum College near Roanoke in the fall. He has a dazzling smile, which is on full display when he talks about being the first person in his family to attend college. But he’s quick to share credit for his success with Erica Lloyd who, straight out of UVA’s Curry School of Education, became I Have a Dream Charlottesville’s coordinator in 2002.
“Ms. Lloyd is like a ninja in the trees, watching everybody,” said Watson. She keeps close track of all her dreamers—both in and out of school.
Lloyd, 31, can be found most days behind an always-open yellow door in a large, bright space in the Charlottesville High School library. An entire wall of her office is papered with dreamer college acceptance letters from places like Boston’s Berklee College of Music, George Mason University, Virginia Tech, James Madison University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Lynchburg College, and Virginia State University, to name a few. Over the past decade, she’s worked closely with teachers and staff at Clark, Walker, Buford, and Charlottesville High schools, among others, to assure the dreamers’ success. She’s taken the group on college visits and field trips, and exposed them to successful first-generation university students. She’s in continuous contact with every dreamer’s family, and has made certain each student has received academic support. She’s helped them explore potential careers by teaming them up with real-world mentors. Every student has participated in self-esteem and “healthy habits” seminars, and they have given hundreds of hours back to the community by volunteering at a variety of organizations, including the PB&J Fund, Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the Barrett Early Learning Center.
“She definitely kept us on track more than anyone,” Joey Wright said. “She was always in school, always checking in, saying ‘I see you’re getting this grade’ or answering any questions we had. My parents didn’t go to college, and you can only get so much information from Googling, so she was more helpful than anyone.”
After she graduates from college, Amanda Lawhorne hopes to becomes a special education teacher because those students “are closer to God,” she said. (Photo by John Robinson)
Amanda Lawhorne, another senior dreamer, will attend Piedmont Virginia Community College in the fall. Earlier this year, when she began having anxiety attacks and missed several weeks of school, Lawhorne was tempted to drop out and forget about one day becoming a special education teacher. Lloyd, however, delivered her homework and issued pep talks. “I had a rough year, and I know I would have quit school without her,” Lawhorne said. “Ms. Lloyd told me [catching up] would be hard, but I could do it. She’s always made me feel special because she was always there to support me.”
Despite that support, Lloyd admits that the road to graduation has had some bumps. “Everything will be going according to plan, and then something blows up,” she said. “There have been health issues and family issues that have threatened [the students’] ability to continue in school. Every kid has had his own journey; nobody’s sailed straight through. Being a teenager is hard, and some of these kids have made some bad choices.” The bumps in the road have included an arrest for shoplifting, an unplanned pregnancy, and one student who “felt he didn’t deserve to be a dreamer.”
But, as Lloyd says again and again, “Once a dreamer, always a dreamer,” meaning the students cannot be kicked out of the program. No. Matter. What. Because of this, when a kid messes up, Lloyd sees it as her job to help him recognize that there’s value in coming back from it, and to not compound the error and spiral down and down. It is why she refuses to give up on the two dreamers who are currently MIA, and why she continues to try to convince them to resume their studies so they can get a high school diploma. In some ways, it’s her presence and her attitude that have had the single most lasting effect on the dreamers.
“What I do isn’t rocket science,” she said. “It’s just walking alongside of these kids and being involved in their lives.” Lloyd—and the program—remind them “they have a valuable future.”
With many of her dreamers leaving CHS, as well as high schools in Albemarle, Fluvanna, Orange, Louisa, Buckingham, Cumberland, Waynesboro, Prince William, North Carolina, and Hawaii, the obvious question is: What’s next?
“Keeping them in college,” Lloyd answered. “Eighty-nine percent of low-income kids drop out of college in the first year, so we need to make sure our kids are plugged in to the support networks that exist on campus. They have to build that community that they’re going to study with and that will hold them accountable.”
Many of her students, she said shaking her head and smiling, are worried about what will happen to her. “They want to marry me off so I can have babies, but I tell them I’m going to keep track of them. I’ll make a lot of college visits, and I’ll take them out for real dinners.”
As for I Have a Dream Charlottesville’s future, Poe said that for all the program’s success, he and Gaffney will feel “on some level like a little bit of a failure if we don’t replicate ourselves. We’re not going to sponsor another class, but I will forever be an ambassador and a strong advocate for this program.” There is a fundraising donor base in place, and “we will help anyone—individually or collectively—who’s willing to adopt a class,” Poe said.
“We want to make sure this is sustainable, and not something that’s come and gone,” Gaffney added. “We want to find a way to pass the torch. We’ve got the infrastructure, and we’ve paved the way, and now we’re hoping and praying that somebody else will step up and continue what we started.”
On the shelves in Erica Lloyd’s office are 62 white binders. Each one is labeled with the name of a Clark Elementary School kindergartener who in 2000 probably didn’t understand what the term “college educated” meant. Over the years, they’ve all become intimately familiar with those two words. Lloyd has made sure they ring in their heads, alongside 13 words penned by author Robert Collier that she printed out long ago, and hung on her wall as a constant reminder: “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.”