UA students partner with communities to tackle economic, health and education challenges in one of the nation’s poorest regions.

By:    Date: 10-01-2015

ARTICLE BY MIRANDA BARRETT AND OLIVIA GRIDER  |  PHOTOS BY ZACH RIGGINS AND MADALYN YOUNG

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Since its launch in May 2013, The University of Alabama’s 57 Miles Perry County Partnership, which gives UA students opportunities to address rural poverty in one of America’s poorest places, has nearly doubled in size.

Located 57 miles from the UA campus, 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 area’s small farms were unable to compete with larger ones and a slow decline began. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 33 percent of the county’s population and 47 percent of its children live below the poverty line while 15 percent of adults are unemployed. The county’s residents also face health and educational disparities.

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Students work on revitalization projects in downtown Marion. ABOVE: UA students Kaylee Sanford [left] and Neethu Thampy paint walls at a Head Start pre-kindergarten school in Marion, Ala., as part of Black Belt Action.

After five years of annual, summer outreach efforts in the Black Belt, UA’s Honors College launched 57 Miles as a year-round initiative. Through a growing range of programs 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.

As part of a 57 Miles internship focused on economic development, Derek Carter, a junior majoring in economics and math, lived and worked in Perry County in Fall 2014. “I’ve gained immense technical and practical knowledge in economics and business from my work,” Carter says. “This knowledge perfectly complements what I’m learning in class at UA, and I’ve also learned about the social side of economics and business. People and relationships are vitally important to both of these fields, and it’s hard to learn that without getting out and experiencing it firsthand.”

During Fall 2014, 154 UA students dedicated 2,027 hours to service programs and projects in Perry County, nearly doubling in just one semester the outreach efforts and accomplishments of the 2013-14 school year.

“Perry County is full of historical significance, and its people are warm and welcoming,” says Chris Joiner, coordinator of 57 Miles. “Through applying what they learn at UA by working with such a special community like Perry County, students are becoming change agents in today’s world.”

Honors College recently leased a building in downtown Marion, Ala. – the county seat of Perry County – and remodeled it to serve as a headquarters for 57 Miles’ efforts. Students named the building P3 to stand for a “third place” – a place besides home or school where people gather to find personal and community identity.

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At Engineering Day, UA students present hands-on demonstrations.

Various events, including a Coffee Hour, Open Mic Night and High School Hangout, are held at P3. To facilitate town discussions and build community, UA students regularly attend the functions held at P3, and interns also live and work in the building. Carter, for instance, attended classes at UA on Tuesdays and Thursdays and spent the rest of the week working with businesses and entrepreneurs in Marion. His projects included a business-recruitment book, which shows benefits and options for businesses locating in Perry County, a series of small-business workshops in which community members work with UA professors to further develop their companies and job-training programs.

Afternoon of Service events also are part of the 57 Miles partnership. Students engage in hands-on revitalization projects while learning about Alabama’s Black Belt. During two Afternoon of Service events in Fall 2014, 100 students cleaned, painted and remodeled buildings in downtown Marion and performed renovation projects at Francis Marion High School.

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UA students renovated Berean Baptist Head Start in Marion, Ala., as part of Black Belt Action.

Sheela Kailasam, a sophomore majoring in finance and math, helped remodel the downtown building that has become P3. “I think that being able to work with a developing community is extremely helpful,” she says. “It’s really true that both of us [students and community members] can gain a lot from each other’s experiences, and it definitely helps to be able to understand different types of people.”

One person who helps introduce UA students to Perry County is Judy Martin, a Marion resident and co-chair of Renaissance Marion, a nonprofit founded to improve 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.”

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

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Through Blueprints, UA students help high schoolers fill out online college applications and financial aid forms.

The Blueprints College Access Program, which helps students at Francis Marion High School discover the full spectrum of their post-secondary options and empowers them to take steps for a successful transition to life after high school. UA students work with high schoolers to complete the FAFSA college financial aid form, fill out college applications and keep track of their applications through organizational tools, write application essays and improve interview skills. They also discuss college culture and helpful study techniques. “Through Blueprints, I have the opportunity to directly provide students with the resources to pursue their dreams,” says Megan Smith, 57 Miles program manager and junior majoring in economics and political science. “Often, their perceptions of what they are capable of grow through a simple conversation. For many of these students, this will be the first time college seems like a realistic possibility for them, and there is no greater feeling than knowing you have potentially altered a person’s entire life story.”

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 2014, 25 freshmen performed renovation and renewal projects at public schools in Marion and helped the community make an itinerary of business needs.

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A student tills soil in preparation for a downtown Marion beautification project.

Spark!, through which 16 Honors College students mentor 30 freshmen 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. “It’s based on encouraging and developing leadership skills and how to put them into action,” Joiner says. “Positive characteristics to add to school, the community and family.”

Outlet, an initiative designed to fight illiteracy in Alabama by empowering youth and getting them excited about reading, writing and sharing poetry. “Poetry is a powerful medium of expression, and its conciseness makes it incredibly accessible to high school students,” says Dana Sweeney, an Outlet director and sophomore majoring in English. “Part of our curriculum is showing our students that poetry is more than an old or dying art form – it is alive in our music, moving through our conversations and buried in our day-to-day experiences. Poetry is a platform – a vehicle for our students to take control of their own narratives and show just how much they have to say.” Four student teams travel to three high schools in Perry, Hale and Pickens counties to conduct weekly, hour-long sessions in which high schoolers analyze, produce and perform poetry. The Spring 2015 semester culminated in a poetry showcase on the UA campus, where high school students performed their poetry, attended workshops with professional poets and seminars on college admissions and financial aid and met other young poets from West Alabama.

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. Four UA Honors students facilitated lessons for 60 sixth graders in 2014-15.

Engineering Day, which invites UA students, faculty and staff to present hands-on engineering demonstrations at Francis Marion High School. In 2014, 15 UA students, two College of Engineering faculty members and 60 high schoolers participated in the event. Presentation topics ranged from app-coding to chemically driven vehicles to hover crafts.

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 suffer from the disease. The group particularly focuses on Alabama’s Black Belt region, which has some of the highest diabetes rates in the country.

For more information about the 57 Miles Perry County Partnership, contact Chris Joiner at 850-698-9175 or chris.joiner@ua.edu.