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Silvestri: Enterprising group lifts spirited local students
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Silvestri: Enterprising group lifts spirited local students

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These kids are more than all right.

Actually, they’re downright inspiring.

I had limited knowledge of the Partnership for the Future before being asked to be its keynote speaker for the Richmond organization’s 20th anniversary and annual “Reaching for the Stars” celebration.

But the more I learned about this enterprising group, the more I wished that many Richmonders could get involved. It says everything right about how to invest in a community’s future.

The Aug. 7 event also was graduation night for the Class of 2014, whose 35 achievers completed the four-year program and now all are headed to college.

I agree with Randolph-Macon College President Robert R. Lindgren when he calls the nonprofit organization and its participants “remarkable.”

That was the runaway conclusion, too, of the packed auditorium inside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where the cheers often roared and standing ovations accented the 90-minute program.

And it’s a bluntly accurate portrayal of what happens when a community, thanks to supporting businesses, provides high-potential students from challenging backgrounds and circumstances with the tools, lessons and experiences necessary to attain a college degree.

Lindgren told me that the Partnership for the Future includes, on average, 150 high school students, grades 9 through 12, from the city of Richmond and Henrico County.

“The rigorous year-round program includes college prep courses, personal development workshops, one-on-one mentoring, savings seminars, as well as incentives to save such as a matching program where private donors match what the students save for college,” said Lindgren, a board member. Also important are internships with big companies such as Capital One, Markel Corp. and Owens & Minor.

“Over 72 percent of our PFF students come from households with incomes of $40,000 or less, and 87 percent of them will be the first generation to attend college.”

Based on their graduation essays or “stories of success,” the ending could have been much different despite their desire to do well in school:

No college.

No aspirations.

No chance.

No future

Nowhere.

Charleita M. Richardson, the organization’s president and CEO, points to the partnership’s vision: “First we change lives, then we change the future.” At the graduation, she changed the second “we” to “they.”

The documented progress allows the students to put life’s setbacks in context by balancing challenges with opportunities, uncertainties with direction, and isolation with networking.

At graduation, some looked back at overcoming homelessness.

Others recalled working to maintain a positive attitude despite bad influences or pain caused by illnesses or deaths of family members.

Many learned how to better focus on school and to juggle priorities.

And nearly all had to deal with the teenage angst of just not knowing what to do, compounded by not a lot of help to figure out the complexities.

Now, the 35 graduates are going to college with a total of $5.1 million in scholarships, helping the Richmond region address a workforce development goal of adding more high school graduates.

And they credit the partnership for the turnaround.

“I appreciate the fact that PFF does not only focus on getting us through high school and on to college, but to make sure we are prepared for adulthood,” Alexis Cosby wrote.

Added Victor Canas: “I learned through my four years that PFF does provide the tools and connections you need in order to be successful; however, it requires action from our part. ... I am that positive person who can find good in the midst of trouble, influence people to see greatness in things and stand up for what is right even when it is unpopular.”

Credit also goes to Alan Kirshner, the chairman and CEO of insurance juggernaut Markel. In 1994, he rounded up local corporations to finance the start of the Partnership for the Future.

Today, more than 80 percent of the partnership’s support still comes from corporate givers.

Kirshner is thankful the program is still going strong, even if some of the original corporate backers are no longer in business.

Like his company, Kirshner invests for the long haul. And that’s what the Partnership for the Future is all about.

Richmond is fortunate he did.

Just ask those 35 impressive incoming college freshmen.

Tom Silvestri is president and publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He is the first in his family to complete college. Silvestri could appreciate why the Class of 2014 was so excited to be taking the next step.

The group’s approach says everything right about how to invest in a community’s future.

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