Earlier this month, Troy Rafferty, a trial lawyer with the Levin Papantonio law firm, announced that he and his wife Ashley were creating a college scholarship fund. The fund was to be administered by the Southern Sports Youth Association (SYSA), a non-profit organization that supports local youth through sports, tutoring, mentoring, and social development.
The couple pledged to donate $50,000 a year to the students in Escambia County with the goal of inspiring them to pursue success through higher education.
“This is about hope,” said Rafferty. “Our children need to know that if they work hard and are committed to making our community better, that the money will be there for them to go to college.”
The attorney explained to Inweekly the genesis of the scholarship fund came from conversations with Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May, founder of SYSA.
“I’ve been familiar with the SYSA for a number of years and, in particular, Commissioner May,” said Rafferty. “I’ve seen firsthand the impact that that organization has with the kids, and teaching them not just sports, but giving them mentorship, and teaching them leadership and community involvement. All those traits that are so important for kids.”
He was stunned when he read in Inweekly that the graduation rate for African-American students was just over 60 percent in Escambia County.
“It floored me, and I happened to be talking with Commissioner May one day, and I asked him, ‘what is it these kids need?’ And he said something that hit me again, and that was he said, ‘They need hope,’” shared Rafferty.
The conversation led to more between the attorney and commissioner. He told Inweekly, “We set about trying to figure out a way to do it and do something positive for the kids—give them hope and incentive to work hard, and stay in school, and to know if they do that, and they give back to their community, that the money will be there for them to go to college.”
Under the program, Escambia County high school students will receive the scholarship funds after graduating high school and meeting other criteria, like maintaining a certain GPA and performing community service. There will also be an oversight by the SYSA in how the scholarship money is spent.
Many of the students who participate in the variety of activities offered by the SYSA are from low-income homes and neighborhoods struggling with crime. As a result, they face additional challenges and often need a guiding hand. Commissioner May said SYSA’s programs, which are run at Legion Field and the nearby Theophalis May Neighborhood Resource Center, are designed to help students become successful athletes, students, and citizens.
“We have children in our community who just need to know somebody cares,” said May. “We try to provide that for them, but it’s an uphill climb considering where they’re growing up.”
According to the Florida Department of Education, Escambia County’s overall high school graduation rate for 2015-16 was 76.1 percent, just below the statewide average of 80.7 percent. However, there’s a disparity among graduates based on race. Among white students, Escambia County’s graduation rate is 81.5 percent, and among African-American students, it’s 63.6 percent.
The county commissioner believes those numbers can improve and the community can help bridge the gap with more support for students. He has seen it work before in the case of Terrell Hankins.
“Jean Norman, then the United Way President and CEO, and Pat Crawford of the University of West Florida worked to give a young man a scholarship when he was in 8th grade,” May told Inweekly.
“That young man worked hard all the way through middle school, through high school, and the simple fact is what Troy’s talks about, we gave him hope.”
The commissioner praised the early learning efforts of Quint Studer and the Studer Community Institute and the University of Chicago’s Thirty Million Words Initiative pilot program in Escambia County.
“But there’s a glass ceiling if we don’t give them something to hope for,” said May. “For many of the young people in our poorer neighborhoods, if they’re not great athletes, if they’re not super students and their parents don’t have the wages, they don’t have hope that they can go to college and get a good-paying job.”
He added, “I mean these are first generation college students in 2017. We still have many of our participants in SYSA who have no one in their family who have ever gone on to higher education. So, this scholarship program is really an opportunity to give some inner-city children hope, and I’m really proud and grateful to be a part of what Mr. Rafferty is doing for the community.”
Rafferty wants the scholarship program to identify the recipients early, while they are in middle school.
“In terms of these particular scholarships, we’re going try to identify the kids at a younger age, so we’re not just giving the money to kids that have already gotten through high school and are going off to college,” he said. “What we want to do is try to identify and award these scholarships to kids early on in middle school, and that way the SYSA will stay involved in mentoring and working with the kids as they go through high school.”
He continued, “The students will know that if they keep up their GPA’s and stay out of trouble, and they give back to their community, that the money will be there for them.”
Why did he choose SYSA to administer the program?
“SYSA was such a perfect match for us because not only do they concentrate on so much more than just sports, which is important, but they work so much on developing mentorship and leadership, morality and giving back to the community, and all those things,” said Rafferty.
“Education is the foundation of everything,” he said. “We have to make sure as a community that we are doing everything we can to make sure that all the kids in the community have that opportunity and get that education. They are the future leaders of our community.”