A private foundation is providing $500,000 for Claflin University to teach leadership skills to young students.
The program, called “GEMSS and GENTSS — 100 Visionary Leaders in Training,” brings together 100 girls and boys in third through eighth grades to help them become “visionary leaders.”
“The earlier we train students to make good decisions, the better it will be later. For students to make good decisions as they go into high school, college and into their careers is our basic purpose,” Dr. Vermelle J. Johnson said. Johnson is Claflin’s former senior vice president and vice president for academic affairs, and will serve as program oversight coordinator.
The grant, which will provide $100,000 a year over five years, is from the Sunshine Lady Foundation, a private family foundation established by Doris Buffett.
“That is why we’re so excited about this. Doris Buffett has to have confidence in you. She did have confidence in what we had done at Claflin, and she decided to fund the proposal that we recently sent in,” Johnson said.
The leadership training program will serve the young males and females included in two existing programs at the university: Girls Embracing Maturity, Strength and Scholarship and Gentleman-Boys Embracing and Nurturing their Transition to Strength and Scholarship. GEMSS is housed under the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and GENTSS is housed under the university’s School of Education.
“Even though they will be operated on a daily basis as two distinct programs, they will be coming under one umbrella of visionary leadership training on our campus. The oversight of the two programs has been given to a single person. Staff training and curriculum development and assessment will be things common to both programs,” Claflin President Dr. Henry N. Tisdale said.
Johnson founded the GEMSS program in 2002. It teaches 50 girls in third through eighth grades to become leaders in science and math, in addition to building positive character traits.
The girls have participated in workshops where they have used advanced equipment such as ultraviolet–visible spectrometers, and have also traveled to as far as Cape Canaveral to learn about robotics and chemistry.
Dr. Angela Peters, chairwoman of the Claflin chemistry department, and Dr. Verlie G. Tisdale, dean of the university’s School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, served as directors.
“I became friendly with the Sunshine Lady Foundation when I met Doris Buffett at Clemson University at one time. That’s how I got affiliated with her. She loves helping people. We talked about the need for helping people who are underserved. One of the big things she did concerned domestic violence and helping people who had made a mistake turn their lives around,” Johnson said.
“My thing was helping them before they get into trouble. We can’t measure the effects as well as we can otherwise, but that’s just as effective to me. She had confidence in me when the university asked for the funds. She’s been funding GEMSS now for eight or nine years,” she said.
The GENTSS program was started last year at the university through the National Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools initiative. The six-week program included 50 middle school boys taught using a curriculum focusing on literary enrichment and intergenerational leadership development. Dr. Valarie Evans, dean of the university’s School of Education, is director of the program.
“We funded the Freedom School one year through the Children’s Defense Fund and then we had to have our own funds. That’s when we went to the Sunshine Lady Foundation Inc.” to ask for funding for a program bringing elements of the GEMSS and GENTSS programs together, Johnson said.
“We asked if she (Buffett) would fund that, and she did. That was a matter of the very strong confidence that she had in us,” Johnson said.
Tisdale said, “Middle school is a very pivotal time for our young people, a time when they’re really trying to make a lot of decisions. We need to do reinforcements of what I know the schools are already doing. We must see a continuum in terms of educating all of our children from middle school to college.”
Johnson said, “We bring people in to mentor and conduct workshops. We believe that doing that is better than having students just sitting down and listening to someone.
“We hope that the exposure that comes through this program will help students to be better students all the way around.”
Other immediate staff who have worked with the program include: Sadie Jarvis, Claflin’s director of counseling, who will direct health and wellness activities; Dr. Rebecca Bullard-Dillard, assistant vice president for research, who will direct evaluative criteria and outcomes; and Dr. Peggy S. Ratliff, dean of Claflin’s School of Humanities, who will oversee helping students develop personal portfolios.
First Lady Alice Carson Tisdale, who hosted the initial meetings in the formative stages of GEMSS, continues to be an avid supporter and strong advocate of the GEMSS and GENTSS program.
Contact the writer: dgleaton@
timesanddemocrat.com and 803-533-5534.