Sunday, June 18, 2006
'Odd marriage' may keep rally alive
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Shanna Flowers is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.
I'm not going to lie.
When I read the little snippet in the Sports section one day last week that Liberty University will be a host of this year's Western Virginia Education Classic, I thought it was, well, an odd marriage.
Now if you don't know the classic, it is the annual fundraiser for Total Action Against Poverty's high school dropout program. The classic, held for six years at Victory Stadium in Roanoke, has featured a football game between two historically black colleges and is a popular draw in Roanoke's black community and a swell time for all -- complete with daylong tailgating, fraternity and sorority step shows, prancing marching bands and gyrating cheerleaders.
So honestly, I was rather surprised when I saw last week's brief mention tucked beside a looming picture of Shaquille O'Neal. I wasn't sure carloads of classic devotees would warm to the idea of transplanting the event -- even for a good cause -- to the Rev. Jerry Falwell's predominantly white, more buttoned-down enclave of higher education and Christian conservative teachings.
Black people love the Lord, too, but talk about your culture clash.
But Roanoke City Councilman Sherman Lea, chairman of the football fundraiser that began six years ago, called to passionately tell me that the partnership with Liberty, and later in the fall with Ferrum College, are mutually beneficial efforts for the colleges and a program that encourages dropouts to resume their education.
"We're a viable community partner," said Kevin Keyes, Liberty's assistant athletic director for external affairs. He told me about the school's double-digit percentage black enrollment and commitment to its urban ministry. He also talked about the school's desire to increase its presence in the Roanoke Valley.
But beyond an opportunity for greater outreach, Keyes said, Liberty is an educational institution that saw value in TAP's effort to help dropouts.
Additionally, the university is bolstering its athletic exposure.
Rather than bringing two college teams to Roanoke to play, Lea said Liberty was willing to designate a home game on its existing schedule -- Aug. 31 against historically black St. Paul's College -- the Western Virginia Education Classic. Ferrum will do the same thing Sept. 23 when it plays Shenandoah.
Because of the pending demolition of Victory Stadium, holding the annual fundraiser at the stadium was no longer an option. But neither was scrapping Project Recovery's main community fundraiser, Lea said.
"We're telling kids not to quit school. We can't quit this thing," Lea said of the annual fall event for a program that has steered 518 back to high school or to a GED track since it was founded in 1999. "Once you stop, once you say it's no longer viable, your corporate sponsorship dries up."
Lea said he and Lewis wanted to take the annual event to a wider audience in a larger venue anyway, so they began brainstorming.
"We certainly believe every child should get a high school diploma. Reality is such that there are those who will drop out. We want to help them get back into school or get a GED," program director Annette Lewis said.
The pair went to Liberty and made a presentation. What they sought was a venue in which the classic's corporate sponsors could continue to hang banners and otherwise advertise.
In the classic's past four years, sponsorships and ticket proceeds have totaled $173,674, but expenses were roughly $144,657, Lewis said. Expenses include negotiated fees paid to the "home" team. She added that in the game's early years, it was new and organizers were still learning where to cut corners and have since tightened up on expenses.
The poor condition of Victory Stadium took a toll last year, with a turnout of only 3,500 people and a revenue loss of $9,000, Lewis said.
Lea said Liberty signed on in April. The university will allow Western Virginia Education Classic sponsors to advertise, with the proceeds going to the dropout program. The school will give a portion of the game's tickets to TAP -- Lea said he will ask for 2,000 -- to sell. Of each $10 ticket that TAP sells, he added, the dropout program will receive $3. It won't get a percentage of the gate when Ferrum plays Shenandoah.
On one point, Liberty stood firm: Its band will perform at half-time.
Lea and Lewis project that the arrangements with Liberty and Ferrum will bring in more money for Project Recovery because the program will not have to split the proceeds with anyone.
The Liberty game is on a Thursday night and has no scheduling conflict with the state's powerhouse schools.
Lea said he is convinced that Roanokers -- and not just the football classic's previous primarily black audience -- will gladly travel to Lynchburg and Ferrum for the games. Project Recovery needs him to be right.
The program helps high school dropouts -- black, white and everyone -- put their lives back on track.
"This is an opportunity for us and Liberty, and we're trying to build bridges," Lea said. "This is an opportunity for us to make a difference in the lives of our children."
Shanna Flowers' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.