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FC Chamber, UNA launch arts scholarship

“Our hope is to inspire the next generation’s love of the arts.”

That straightforward statement by Franklin County Chamber of Commerce Director Cassie Medley perhaps best sums up the idea behind the CREATE Scholarship, announced Friday in a reception at the Historic Roxy Theatre. Through a partnership between the FC Chamber and the University of North Alabama School of the Arts, led by executive director Terrance Brown, this scholarship initiative has been launched for Franklin County students.

It was Brown who first came to Medley with ideas to further arts education and pave the way for arts students – particularly those in financial need.

“When we started the School of the Arts, we noticed there was a deficiency in the bridge between the University of North Alabama arts community and surrounding communities. We wanted to find a way we could make a sustainable and long-lasting impact in aiding students to be able to find success,” Brown explained. “Cassie was wonderful in responding, and we had a series of meetings and talked about how we could form some kind of partnership.”

This was a year ago, and Medley said when she first connected with Brown, it didn’t take long to get deep in a conversation about the financial problems facing students in Franklin County, where a large percentage of families are “economically disadvantaged,” according to statistics Brown presented Friday.

“I was telling him about Hispanic friends of (my daughter) Sydney’s who had to quit band or had to quit chorus because their family needed them to go to work,” Medley said. “He had tears in his eyes, and I had tears in my eyes, talking about these kids who couldn’t because they had to help their families.”

One conversation led to another, and after talking with arts teachers, school administrators and students in Franklin County, the need was abundantly clear.

The CREATE Scholarship makes its meaning clear with a name that is an acronym of its purpose – Community Reaching Every Artist Through Education.

“The CREATE scholarship is an opportunity to make a real impact in the lives of students in the Franklin County and Russellville City school systems,” Brown said. “We hope this fund will be able to affect people who are not only majoring or minoring in the arts but just involved in the arts. The only stipulation is a student has to be enrolled in some kind of artistic, creative class at the institution. If they choose to major in it, great. If they don’t, great. We want to make sure their creativity is there for whatever field they choose.”

Once the scholarship fund has been fully funded by community donors and sponsors, students will be able to apply for $1,500 scholarships – funding that won’t be limited to use on tuition or even books. Brown said students who take on the in-depth application process will outline their plans for the funding and, once they are approved by a vetting board, will be able to use the funds for whatever purposes they have laid out – whether that’s a traditional need like room and board or a less conventional need like paying for gas or affording new tires. The funding will be available for whatever need might keep a student from continuing his or her higher education.

Funding will be available to any student from FCS or RCS enrolling at UNA or enrolling at Northwest-Shoals Community College who will be transferring to UNA.

“In Franklin County and Russellville City Schools, 78.33 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged,” Brown said. “With these numbers, it’s no wonder students have a hard time getting past their secondary education to collegiate-level education … If we have the ability to unite to help the students of this great community, we should do so – and we will do so.”

The fund will be a nonprofit, and Brown said all money donated will go directly to students – not to any overhead or operational costs whatsoever.

Following a brief presentation to introduce the program Friday, Brown welcomed a guest speaker to the stage to share his own story in the arts: UNA theatre professor and county native Charlton James.

“I can never a remember a time in this town growing up that I was not encouraged to (pursue the arts),” said James, who went on to become a professional actor, performing on stage and on television. He encouraged everyone to be part of this new scholarship fund. “Any young artist needs an opportunity or a safe place to develop their voice or their art … A lot of time artists are people who grew up in rough environments and they have a lot of experience living an emotional life. That’s why they want to become artists in the first place because they need a place to express themselves … We hope this scholarship will help.”

Of the guests at Friday’s scholarship launch, Brown said several responded immediately to offer their pledges and donations. Other supporters from across the community are invited to come on board and join the effort.

“We hope this can be a great example for other counties to get on board,” Medley added. “Not just Franklin County, for Franklin County students and Russellville City students, but that it will expand and grow, and other counties are going to support the arts in their counties.”

To find out more or make a donation or pledge, email tbrown5@una.edu or director@franklincountychamber.org.

When it comes to encouraging potential donors or sponsors to get behind this new effort, Brown said he hopes people will choose this particular cause as a “worthy cause that focuses on making better humans rather than making the world better.”

“I hope they find CREATE to be one of those worthy causes,” Brown said.

Others involved in bringing the program to fruition are UNA’s Vanessa Borelly Vega, Melanie Hodges, Monica Collier, Meghan Merciers, Anthony Crisafulli and others in the FC Chamber office.

“Hopefully,” Medley added, “this will enable kids to dream big and fulfill those dreams.”

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