My name is Grace Whitmire and I am a senior at UAB pursuing my Bachelors Degree in Early Childhood/Elementary Education. I changed my major to Education a little over a year ago and it has been one of the best decisions of my life. I first heard about GEAR UP Alabama in one of my classes last semester (Fall 2018). We were studying different types of families and Dr. Briggs, Project Director of GUA, visited our class and gave a presentation on families living in poverty. She talked about her experiences visiting the Black Belt and her passion was both obvious and contagious. Knowing that there were families in counties within the Black Belt who didn’t even have running water broke my heart and ignited a flame in my being that urged me to learn more about GUA and its mission.

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After class, I went up to the front of the classroom and spoke with Dr. Briggs. I introduced myself and expressed my interest in attending one of the Black Belt Friday Bus Tours. She told me where to go to find more information and where to sign up for the bus list. Walking away from class that day, I felt like I had taken a step in the right direction. I immediately went online and signed up for the next bus trip. This trip was on Friday, November 30th and we were scheduled to travel to Booker T. Washington High School in Macon County. I had read on the website and in the details about the trip that there would be some time to discuss the history of the area and that we would be visiting a historical landmark as well, so I was really looking forward to the day ahead. I enjoyed the bus ride down to the Black Belt because we engaged in meaningful discussion and we heard amazing things from the brothers of Let Us Make Man. I’ll admit, I had never participated in anything like this before, so I was very nervous. The staff at Booker T. Washington High School and the GUA staff all made me feel so welcome and comfortable, so as soon as I stepped foot into the school, my nerves were completely gone. The school welcomed us in such a way that was so far from what I was expecting. You could tell that pride, honor, and school spirit lived in this school and its students.

Getting to speak with the students, share my own experiences, and answer their questions was such an inspirational experience for me. The way those students spoke about their school and their plans for their futures was nothing short of amazing. I was so very honored and humbled to have met everyone there. Needless to say, I left the school that day wishing I had been a student at that high school. Following our visit to the school, we toured Macon County’s Vocational School and the historic Shiloh Rosenwald School. This part of the trip was very interesting because we were able to learn about some of the amazing opportunities for students in Macon County and learn about the history of the area. On the bus trip home, we discussed everything that happened and what we learned from the trip. Overall, I learned that we should invest our time and resources in today’s youth because they will be tomorrow’s leaders. I feel very thankful for the education that I have and for the opportunities that were given to me when I was in school and now, I feel an obligation to help ensure others have the same opportunities as I did.

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Since the trip to Macon County in 2018, I have participated in each Black Belt Friday Trip in 2019, including trips to Butler County, Montgomery, and Wilcox County. Each time I go, I learn so much more about the students, their communities, the GUA staff, and myself. I am a true believer that what GUA is doing in the lives of these students is making a difference. Dr. Briggs and Dr. Perry have both explained multiple times that even if we just spoke to the students for a small moment, we planted seeds. We may never get to see that seed grow, and that’s okay. Giving students hope that their dreams can become a reality is something that I want to keep doing as long as I’m able to. I am so thankful that I made the decision to attend one of the Black Belt Friday Bus Trips because it has changed my life in so many ways. If you are reading this and are on the fence about whether or not you should go, then take my advice and DO IT!! You will be so glad you did. I am so thankful for the opportunity to get to know the GUA staff and members of Let Us Make Man. This organization is simply amazing.