‘Stories waiting to be written:’ Leadership Academy looks ahead to next 10 years
By Matthew Stewart | (email@example.com)
The Richard Williams Jr. Leadership Development Academy’s mission to serve tomorrow’s leaders has never been easy — but it’s been fruitful.
In the early days, co-founders George Williams and Patty Littlejohn recruited local schoolchildren and made home visits to each prospective cadet’s parents. They worked out of a plastic storage crate and held program meetings at their own houses.
Williams later reached out to then-Blount Partnership President and CEO Fred Forster. They started discussing the program’s goals, and Forster offered his advice and guidance to Williams on multiple occasions.
Community members worked in 2003 to save the former Alcoa Middle School, which is the current Alcoa City Center. The site previously served as Charles M. Hall School, which educated black students prior to desegregation.
Forster helped secure the Alcoa City Center’s first tenant: Blount Memorial Hospital. The hospital later became the Richard Williams Jr. Leadership Development Academy’s first community partner.
During the next seven years, the nonprofit didn’t have dedicated space for its programs. They used vacant space in the Alcoa City Center, or held field meetings. Staff organized meetings at the City of Alcoa Public Safety Building, Blount County Public Library and Pellissippi State Community College’s old Bungalow campus.
The Richard Williams Jr. Leadership Development Academy has only experienced one challenging year in its 10 years, Williams said. In 2006, the nonprofit experienced problems involving inner city Nashville children at its annual summer camp.
After the 2006 summer camp, the Richard Williams Jr. Leadership Development Academy’s story took a turn for the better. Businesses and individuals, such as DENSO Manufacturing Tennessee and Alcoa Walmart manager Boyce Smith, partnered with the nonprofit in this time period.
“Blount Countians have opened their hearts to us,” Williams said. “They’ve quietly and effectively embraced the work that we do. Some of the most unlikely public personalities have been our most substantial supporters, but they’ve requested to remain anonymous. We can’t forget them, though. We’ve had our backs against the wall, but we’ve always survived.”
Staff members have been tested on several occasions, Williams said. “We’ve wanted to throw in the towel, but something has always happened. We’d see that we were making a difference in some child’s life, so we’d decide to stay open for another semester. Then the 10-year anniversary was suddenly upon us.”
“We’ve seen great successes, to date,” Williams said. “However, we’ve got so many stories waiting to be written.”
Some of the nonprofit’s successes were shared at its ninth annual Kramer Summer Leadership Camp and Youth Congress. The camp, which is hosted by Maryville College and sponsored by the Alcoa City Center and DENSO, supplements the nonprofit’s year-round programming.
Nearly 160 children participated in the Kramer Summer Leadership Camp and Youth Congress, which was held June 3-7, Williams said. It’s the largest number of participants in camp history, exceeding its previous record by more than two times.
Former cadets and Blount County Circuit Court Judge Tammy Harrington shared their stories in one session titled “Making Your Miles Your Milestones.” Panelists encouraged current cadets to use their hardships as motivational tools.
Harrington talked about surviving cancer and set the stage for the “best session” in camp history, Williams said. “By the time that everyone was finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. It was a very powerful experience.”
Norval Parrish talked about overcoming obstacles, such receiving a pacemaker at 11 years old and spending time in Department of Children’s Service custody. He currently works at TAC Air.
“As Norval was speaking, I kept thinking about the skinny, unhealthy boy that I first met,” Williams said. “He’s become a very polished, extremely articulate young man. I’m so thankful that we didn’t quit.”
Augusta Aultom and Danielle Wallace also shared their own stories. Aultom currently works at Cherokee Health Systems, and Wallace is getting ready to enter college.
The nonprofit has a 100 percent college acceptance and entrance rate, Williams said. Tommeka Jackson recently received a bachelor’s degree from Aurora University, acquitting herself as the first cadet to earn a degree from a four-year postsecondary institution.
Williams is confident that several currents cadets will surpass their predecessors. “We’ve got some cadets who are going to blow them out of the water.”
Cadets, such as Tiasia Flowers and Riane Griffin, have bright futures ahead of them, he said. “They’re going to make the community proud.”
Many cadets also consider the Kramer Summer Leadership Camp and Youth Congress’ Fred Forster Day of Service to be the week’s highlight, Williams said. “Some children become really strong leaders in only a couple days at camp. Several others have expressed a desire to serve others. We’ve got some cadets who could become community-based organizers, but we’ve definitely got a bunch who will become community volunteers. They’re going to give back.”
Staff members are working to better serve its cadets, he said. “We’re looking at improvements and new directions. We want to try to do more with fewer kids.”
The nonprofit, which has practiced open enrollment since its inception, will retain its current cadets for next year, Williams said. Staff will partner this year with Tennessee Head Start, as well.
Head Start would use the Richard Williams Jr. Leadership Development Academy’s space at the Alcoa City Center, Williams said. “We’re very excited about this opportunity, because it will allow us to work with even younger kids.”
Staff are currently working with children in grades 2-12, he said. They would work with preschoolers as a result of the new partnership.
The Richard Williams Jr. Leadership Development Academy will change its operations due to the partnership, Williams said. Staff will tweak the program’s after-school programming.
In its early years, the nonprofit partnered with the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center to provide homework help and tutoring services. For the past two years, Maryville College volunteers have worked with cadets.
The Richard Williams Jr. Leadership Development Academy plans this year to resume its partnership with the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, Williams said. They’re evaluating additional community partnerships, as well.
“We’re looking forward to the next 10 years,” he said. “However, we’re deeply grateful to everyone who helped us in the first 10 years.
“We wouldn’t have been able to succeed without the assistance of Blount Countians who cared about these children and our community,” Williams said. “We’ve helped achieved impressive outcomes, and we look forward to even more in the coming years.”