Kyle Leinart, a civil engineering student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is dreaming bigger these days. The sophomore from Anderson County, Tenn., a former coal-mine region where poverty is rampant and career options are few, is one of 32 local students who have realized the dream of college. It's all thanks to a project that geotechnical engineer Barry Thacker, president of Knoxville-based GeoEnvironmental Associates Inc., began 12 years ago to address water quality in the region.
Thacker's Coal Creek Watershed Foundation (CCWF) started out with a goal to improve the trout habitat where he liked to fish. It has since become a life-changer for Leinart, his peers and the local community. The non-profit group has awarded more than $250,000 in college scholarships to date. Its real value has come in connecting students to the region's environment and their career potential.
Mine runoff and flooding have long bedeviled the Coal Creek area. The foundation has been instrumental in reversing ravages of 100-year floods, reclaiming abandoned mine property and improving rudimentary drinking-water supply systems.
But addressing the deep-rooted poverty in Briceville was tougher. About 90% of its K-5 elementary school's 140 students are on free or reduced-cost lunches, only 40% graduate high school and less than 3% go to college, says Thacker. Illicit production of drugs such as methamphetamine is often a leading career choice. "The sheriff told me that a Briceville child would be more likely to go to prison than college," says Thacker. "The kids were thought of as poor, dumb hicks."
Not anymore. Starting with its focus on the younger grades, the foundation has become a key academic partner. "CCWF has given hope to the children who otherwise couldn't dream big," says Leinart. "Each time it visits the school, the kids realize the importance and power they hold over their lives—because I definitely did."
The first scholarship recipient to choose an engineering major was Leinart, whom Thacker encouraged with a summer internship and the promise of full-time work after graduation. Other grads have chosen to pursue advanced business and medical degrees as well as career paths in, for example, mental- health therapy and the culinary arts.
Kippie Leinart, Kyle's mother and a custodian at the Briceville school, is relieved the scholarship will allow him to focus on his GPA without work as a distraction. "This has opened up so many doors, it's incredible," she says.
But scholarships come with some strings attached. Using the Coal Creek surroundings as another classroom, the foundation requires the winners to participate in its projects: research on the region's mining history, tree restoration on reclaimed mine property and riverbank protection, among others. Younger students are pulled into the activities, too. Recipients must also mentor lower grades and appear at Briceville Elementary's Scholars Day, a much-anticipated annual event.