With the 57 Miles Partnership, UA students battle economic, health and education challenges in one of the nation’s poorest regions.

By:    Date: 08-24-2016

Article by Melody Schmidt  |  Photos by Matthew Wood, Soledad Cortes-Hernandez and Lane Stafford and courtesy 57 Miles

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Freshmen at The University of Alabama are encouraged to find their “home” in the community, something to be part of that is bigger than themselves. Some students have found their home 57 miles from the UA campus in Marion, Ala. The 57 Miles Perry County Partnership, named after the distance between Marion, the county seat of Perry County, and the UA campus, connects UA students with community members to address rural poverty in of one of America’s most disadvantaged areas.

Perry County was once one of the wealthiest counties in the country due to the fertile soil of the Black Belt region, but it is now among the most economically challenged. As farming became more mechanized after the Civil War, the region’s small farms were unable to compete with larger ones and a slow decline began. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 47 percent of the county’s residents live in poverty. The unemployment rate is approximately 10 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and residents also face health and educational disparities.

After five years of annual, summer outreach efforts in the Black Belt by students involved in the University Fellows Experience, UA’s Honors College launched 57 Miles as a year-round initiative in May 2013. Since then, 57 Miles has grown to include more than 15 programs. Through this expanding range of initiatives and projects, students collaborate with Perry County community members to identify challenges and develop and implement solutions. They draw on knowledge gained in the classroom while cultivating skills in project development, leadership, teamwork, nonprofit management and community engagement.

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HERE AND ABOVE: Freshmen including Michael Smith and Michelle Pearson renovate public schools in Marion, Ala., as part of Black Belt Action.

“Working in Marion is an eye-opening experience,” says Marissa Cornelius, a sophomore majoring in secondary education. “Even through the challenges the people of Marion face, there is an undeniable sense of community that cannot be defeated. 57 Miles helps to capitalize on this sense of community, bolster it and channel it towards making tangible change.”

During the 2015-16 academic year, 275 UA students dedicated approximately 3,300 hours to service programs and projects in Perry County.

“We engage students from all across campus by offering opportunities of varying commitment levels that range from one-day experiences, like our bi-semester Afternoon of Service, to year-long programs, such as our Spark! Mentoring Program and our Outlet Poetry Initiative,” says Anastasiya Titarenko, a sophomore majoring in religious studies. “At 57 Miles, we believe that the best way for students to unlock their passions is to put the knowledge they acquire in the classroom into real, tangible experiences outside of the classroom.”

With the support of the Marion community, Honors College began leasing a building in downtown Marion in 2014 to serve as headquarters for 57 Miles’ efforts. Students named the building P3 to stand for a “third place” – a place besides home or school where people can gather to find personal and community identity.

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During an Afternoon of Service event, students revitalize parts of downtown Marion, Ala.

Various events, including a coffee hour, open mic night and swing dance socials, have been held at P3, and the building is open for community members to host meetings, study or just hang out. To facilitate town discussions and build community, UA students regularly attend functions at P3, and interns also live and work in the building.

“I spend every Monday afternoon at P3,” says Kristen Homme, a sophomore studying chemical engineering and biology. “The first Monday of each month, there’s a group of crafters who come in and work on projects together – the older women teaching new skills to the younger, and the younger women doing the same in return. I’ve met so many interesting people, and I absolutely love getting away from campus for a bit to a town with so much history and such a wide variety of people.”

Afternoon of Service events also are part of the 57 Miles partnership. During two Afternoon of Service events in Fall 2015, more than 150 students worked on beautification projects around Marion’s downtown square and at Francis Marion High School, FMHS football stadium, the Lincoln Normal School and the Perry County Chamber of Commerce.

One person who helps introduce UA students to Perry County is Judy Martin, a Marion resident and co-chair of Renaissance Marion, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the city’s visual effect. Martin gives students tours of the area and guides their service projects. “I try to help them understand the community – its struggles and strengths,” she says. “I find it very impressive to see how quickly students engage. They adjust quickly and pitch right in. They have open minds and innovative ideas.”

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A UA student shares her life map with freshmen taking part in the Spark! program at Francis Marion High School before helping the high schoolers start their own maps.

The 57 Miles Perry County Partnership continues to add programs and participants. Other current projects include:

Black Belt Action, a weeklong service-learning course for incoming Honors College freshmen that takes place before fall classes begin. While executing service projects, students explore elements of community and implications of systemic poverty through discussions with local leaders, group reflection and reading assignments. In 2015, 38 freshmen performed renovation and renewal projects at public schools in Marion and helped the community make an itinerary of business needs.

Spark!, through which six Honors College students mentored 15 freshmen in 2015-16 during weekly sessions at Francis Marion High School. UA students provide leadership training and expand kids’ academic and career horizons while instilling a sense of personal efficacy and pride in community.

Outlet, an initiative designed to fight illiteracy and empower youth in Alabama through reading, writing and sharing poetry. Student teams travel to three high schools in Perry and Pickens counties to conduct weekly, hour-long sessions in which high schoolers analyze, produce and perform poetry. The Spring 2016 semester culminated in a poetry showcase on the UA campus, where high school students performed their poetry, attended workshops with UA faculty members and seminars on college admissions and financial aid and met other young poets from West Alabama.

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UA students demonstrate a vehicle at Engineering Day.

Support of Renaissance Marion, which fights deterioration in the community through beautification projects.

Dinner with Perry County, held twice a semester, in which Perry County community members dine with University of Alabama honors students on the UA campus. Each dinner is based around community themes such as education, health care, arts or economics.

Art Outreach, which introduces multiple art forms to children at Albert Turner Elementary School in Marion. Three UA honors students and a UA professor facilitated weekly lessons for more than 50 kids in 2015. Jane Cassidy, assistant professor of digital media, helps students teach the program, which introduces children to the basic principles of art. “Everyone is so welcoming and appreciative of what we do,” says Alyssa Bentley, a sophomore majoring in marine science and biology. “When I come into the class, all the kids are so excited for us to be there and so engaged in what we are working on.”

Engineering Day, an annual event that invites UA students, faculty and staff to present hands-on engineering demonstrations at Francis Marion High School. On April 15, 2016, 20 UA students, Dr. John Kim, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, and more than 300 elementary, middle and high school students participated in the event. Presentation topics ranged from chemical reactions powering cars to building a canoe out of concrete to whether it’s possible to drown in quicksand. “One of the best parts of the day was that a high-school class also presented their science-fair projects, which included a huge variety subjects, from the absorption ability of gummy bears in different solutions to a working robotic arm,” Homme says.

DiET, the Diabetes Education Team, an initiative founded and run by UA students that educates the West Alabama community about diabetes and provides information and tools to those who live with the disease. The group particularly focuses on Alabama’s Black Belt region, which has some of the highest diabetes rates in the country.

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Students beautify the grounds of a school in Perry County.

Forza Financial, a program that offers loan services and business coaching in West Alabama, including Perry County. “It was an incredibly rewarding experience as we were able to work with and live with the Marion community in the P3 space,” says Erica Boden, a junior majoring in finance and economics. “We wrote two loans with Forza’s capital to local business owners. Since then, we’ve been able to have business coaches in contact with them as they go through the process of paying off their loans.”

LIVE, Living in Victory Everyday, which exposes people in rural communities such as Marion to nutrition education and physical-fitness activities that lower chronic-disease risk. The LIVE experience promotes the health and well-being of community members who are at least 30 years old and predisposed to cardiovascular disease or diabetes, says Jermaine Mitchell, a postdoctoral fellow in UA’s Center for Community-Based Partnerships.

A computer literacy program that teaches high schoolers basic programming skills and the way programming language works. The initiative consists of three days of coding tutorials and games, giving high school students insight into how to use Javascript. Two 57 Miles students, a computer-science professor and a high-school teacher implemented the three-day program for four 11th-grade girls in 2015.

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Students [l-r] Courtney Geary and Alida Babcock with 57 Miles coordinator Davis Jackson at P3 in Marion, Ala.

• Theatre and dance projects in which UA students teach high schoolers principles of theatre through games and other activities. High schoolers are encouraged to make connections between these activities and life skills such as teamwork, critical thinking and presentation skills. “Oftentimes, I think due to the low socioeconomic status of the entire community, a lot of the positive aspects [of Marion] are easily swept under the rug or forgotten,” says Alexandra Bolton, a freshman majoring in social work. “The kids and the teachers we have encountered are so eager to learn and they are ambitious and willing to work hard every week.”

For more information about the 57 Miles Perry County Partnership, contact Davis Jackson at 205-348-4648 or djackson2@crimson.ua.edu.