The invitation said it was a reception in honor of Black Belt Teacher Corps Scholars Class of 2017-18.  So, I immediately noted May 3rd on my calendar and made plans to be at Brock Hall on the campus of the University of West Alabama in Livingston on that date.

After all, deep inside I felt as if each one of these 11 seniors were “mine” in some sense.

I have written about the Black Belt Teacher Corps a number of times.  In a nutshell, it is an attempt to grow your own teachers for a region that has a difficult time recruiting top talent for its classrooms.  Truth is that if you grew up in Huntsville or Birmingham or Atlanta and went to college to become a teacher, it’s highly unlikely that that your expectations were to end up with a job in Gilbertown, Linden, Camden, York, Aliceville or one of the many other small communities dotting west Alabama.

So, the concept put in place by the good folks at UWA is to find top-notch local talent, young people who may have grown up in Gilbertown, Linden, Camden, York or Aliceville, help them get their education and then keep them at home to work in local schools.

There has been a similar program in the Missouri Ozarks for a number of years.  And somewhere in my ramblings and readings I learned of it.  That’s when I met Gary Funk, who then ran the Ozark Community Foundation, and who played a vital role in starting the Missouri program.

Why couldn’t we do the same thing in west Alabama I wondered.  So, several years ago, I lured Funk, who today directs the Rural School Collaborative out of Cambridge, WI, to Livingston where we met with Ken Tucker, president of UWA, and Jan Miller, dean of the college of education.

They were sold on the idea and wanted to give it a go.  All we needed was some money to get everything up and running.

That’s when fate, to a large degree, smiled on our plans.

Because of my involvement with education around the state, I’ve long been friends with Senator Arthur Orr of Decatur and Representative Bill Poole of Tuscaloosa who chair the education funding committees in the senate and house.

They are both good guys and good friends.  In addition, Bill Poole grew up in Marengo County in the Black Belt.

Almost by accident I found some money in the Education Trust Fund that was not going to be needed for its intended purpose and approached Orr and Poole with the idea of the Black Belt Teacher Corps at UWA.

They recognized the need and signed off on the idea.  We also enlisted the supported of Senator Bobby Singleton who represents a large swath of Black Belt territory.

Students selected for the program get specialized training to better help them as teachers in this region, as well as $5,000 scholarships for both their junior and senior years.

And so on May 3rd I was among graduating seniors, proud mamas and daddies, faculty and others to celebrate the journey we had all made together.

Haley Richardson of Reform, AL (Pickens County) spoke for her classmates about what the experience meant to her.  I was sitting beside her mother who was beaming from ear to ear.  And her smile got even bigger when Haley said that she was graduating “debt free” because of the BBTC scholarship.

Then another senior, Allie Marquis, took the floor for a presentation.

Honest, I was very surprised when she called my name and presented me with a framed photo of the entire class, along with their hand-written notes to me.

That’s when I told the group that “I am almost at a loss for words.”  Which brought a hardy laugh from my dear friend Ken Tucker.

Truly, this recognition was unexpected.  But very, very, very special.  So much so that I took it around Montgomery the next day to show a number of friends.

As I write this, Macy Bush, Levi Dorsett, Paige Gandy, Devante Giles, Mellisa Grayson, Allyson Jacobs, Allie Marquis, Haley Richardson, Haley Sager, Elizabeth Waddell and Brittany Williams are now college graduates.

For them, one journey has ended and another is about to begin.

I am so proud of each of them and so glad that lady luck allowed me to play a very tiny role in both journeys.