First Horizon’s Carol Yochem, left, presents a check to the Martha O’Bryan Center’s Marsha Edwards.

 By Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN — The First Horizon Foundation last week announced a $120,000 donation to the Martha O’Bryan Center to support education programs helping local high school students prepare for college and graduate, the organization said.

$20,000 will support an inaugural program awarding scholarships to college students in the program pursuing finance, business or technology and $100,000 will support the First Horizon Foundation Success Generation program which combines an in-school support program, called Academic Student Unions, at Stratford and Maplewood high schools. 

ASUs help at-risk students prepare for and successfully apply to college with mentors helping them stay in school and graduate with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, representatives said.

For most the transition to postsecondary education comes with evolving responsibilities and a complex journey of self-discovery, many times while working a job and attending extracurriculars. Sometimes the stress of the experience is enormously compounded by factors beyond their control. 

Chris Clark’s story is a testimony to the impact of education fostered through projects like ASUs.

Student Chris Clark at the Martha O’Bryan Center. Courtesy photo

During his junior year at Maplewood the family lost their home and moved into a cramped hotel room. “We had to pack up and leave right away,” he said in a speech.

Compounding this pain was the heartbreak of having to give away their two dogs, Missy and Rocko.

“I’m not really sure what happened to them, and I loved those dogs, so that was pretty tough,” he said.

The disruption caused more than emotional and financial stress. The already-challenging life of a teen was thrown into disarray as he lost his privacy and had no space where he could concentrate. 

What should have been a year of considering options for his future turned into questioning whether that future was even possible.

Clark’s grades spiraled downward. “College was quickly becoming an unlikely option, and many days I just didn’t care about what was going to happen after high school.”

Eventually he noticed his peers attending College Zone, an ASU at Maplewood. It provided the space, mentorship and tools he needed to flourish.

“It was social, and felt normal. I was encouraged to do my homework when I was there. I pretty much never did my homework in the hotel room,” he said.

But his uneasiness with his academic performance at the time made him question attending college. The staff encouraged him to imagine what was possible for his future, he said, but college “sounded expensive and hard to get into, especially with my grades getting so bad.”

Clark;s grades that year stagnated but he came into senior year determined to do better with the support of loved ones and the tools he’d been learning to build himself up.

“I already knew how to study, how to manage my time, and how to approach work with discipline,” he said. “Martha O’Bryan taught me how to set weekly goals to stay on track of everything I want to accomplish, and it is a habit I still do today.”

With help from the Success Generation program Clark went to Belmont University on a full scholarship. He completed his degree and is enrolled in two graduate school tracks with intentions of becoming an athletic director. He’s currently a coach at RePublic High School in Nashville and spends much of his time mentoring students.

The Center’s efforts are made possible through private funding, with First Horizon’s recent investment totalling $650,000 since 2015.

Carol Yochem, Middle Tennessee Region President of First Horizon Bank, noted a 261 percent increase in college enrollments and a 1400 percent increase in college graduations for Stratford and Maplewood students since the program began. 

“They are setting the example for businesses looking to make a lasting impact on our city,” 

said Marsha Edwards, President and CEO of Martha O’Bryan Center. That impact, Edwards noted, is the rise out of poverty. 

For those who attend trade school and receive their certifications, the path out of poverty could take as little as 18 months, she remarked.

First Horizon Foundation, the private charitable foundation of First Horizon Corporation, has donated more than $100 million to meet community needs for Arts & Culture, Education & Leadership, Environment, Financial Literacy, and Health & Human Services. More information is available at www.firsthorizonfoundation.com. 

The Martha O’Bryan Center serves over 15,000 people annually with various programs including early learning, adult education, employment coaching, crisis counseling and public charter schools East End Prep and Explore! Community School. For more visit www.marthaobryan.org.