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story.lead_photo.caption Bob Nash sports the signature, eye-catching City Year red jacket with pride. He credits an organization similar to City Year for his rise from a poor student to a White House adviser. “These young people are going to be leading the state one day.” - Photo by Benjamin Krain

During Bob Nash's early years on a farm near Texarkana there were many paths he could have taken. The one he chose put him in positions of authority and great responsibility, working with very powerful people.

Photo by Benjamin Krain
Bob Nash, co-chairman of the Red Jacket Ball, is quick to praise City Year and the work it does with at-risk students in Little Rock. With a third of the organization’s funding endangered, he says, “This is a critical effort.”

After graduating from Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), he earned his master's degree in urban studies from Howard University in Washington, then came back to work for a string of Arkansas governors. Eventually, he worked for Bill Clinton as an economic adviser, then served first as undersecretary of agriculture and then White House personnel director during Clinton's presidency.

His is a story that could have had a very different ending if not for a national program called Model Cities, which provided mentoring for at-risk students.

"I was not a great student and could have gone in a wrong direction," Nash says. "But I got this help and I know that's why I was able to rise to work for the leader of the free world."

Model Cities doesn't exist anymore, but Nash sees City Year as a modern-day equivalent, and that's part of why he now serves as co-chairman of this year's fundraising Red Jacket Ball. City Year, a division of the AmeriCorps community service program, was founded in 1988, and the City Year Little Rock branch began in 2004 with founding board chairman, retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark.

Through the program, young people (often recent college or graduate school graduates) spend a year in one of 28 urban, high-poverty communities across the country helping with the public school system.

The City Year members work with students, either one-on-one or in a group setting, helping and encouraging them in subjects such as math and English and even classroom attendance.

The program targets students who are at risk, as Nash explains, "who have a lot of potential but they need some special attention over and above what they're getting provided every day. That's what City Year does, tries to identify the most vulnerable students in a school or a group of schools and help them prepare to be productive citizens."

City Year Little Rock now has 54 recruits working with about 5,000 students in grades three through nine in six schools.

"They're there early in the morning. They're there in the evening. They work with the parents of these children. Oftentimes, it makes the difference between a student being successful or not."

To help support City Year Little Rock, the program presents its big Red Jacket Ball, named for City Year's signature bright jackets. It's an evening of food, music and auctions that brings together the City Year workers, Little Rock School District members and people in the community so they can learn about the kind of work the young people do for the schools.

This year's ball, scheduled for May 11, is particularly crucial. The goal is to raise $200,000.

The proposed national budget completely cuts funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service, and while it's uncertain what will eventually happen, that proposal makes this year's fundraising efforts even more important.

City Year Little Rock Executive Director Sarah Roberson says City Year Little Rock would lose $598,000 (almost a third of its annual budget) without the federal money.

Nash explains that City Year is funded by three sources: the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Little Rock public schools and private corporations, foundations and individuals.

"This is the first time in 12 years we've had this kind of challenge," Nash says. "We always have a challenge of raising money. But the community has really stepped up."

He says that the Red Jacket Ball draws hundreds of people every year and the program continues to have the dedicated support of the public school system, where teachers and administrators see the program as a supplement to what they're trying to accomplish.

The money raised at the ball stays with the Little Rock City Year program, most of it paying the salaries of the 54 City Year young people. It isn't much -- really a subsistence wage. But from what Nash has observed through talking to the City Year participants, they don't do it for the money. They're motivated to do their part.

"They're so excited about the work they're doing with these kids," Nash says. "They know it makes a difference."

And Nash hears from the school students as well.

"They said to me, 'You know, these folks care about us. They tell us we can be whatever we want.' It just makes a difference when someone tells you that. You strive to show them that you can."

Nash believes it's a cause that's in everyone's best interest. For instance, corporations planning to move in will look for good schools and a well-educated, motivated workforce.

Nash points to his father, a lifelong laborer. He had the will to work, but very few real skills.

"Today, my father probably would not work because he wouldn't have the skills," Nash says. "Today, you've got to have not only the will to work but the skill."

When students fall through the cracks, that loss of potential affects everyone. You never know just what that promising but troubled student could turn out to be.

"They're like diamonds in the rough," says Nash. "You've got to shine them. If you don't, you might never realize what you have here."

The Red Jacket Ball is at 6 p.m. May 11 at the Statehouse Convention Center. Tickets are $200. Call (501) 707-1402 or visit www.cityyear.org/little-rock.

High Profile on 04/30/2017

Print Headline: Red Jacket Ball leader: Fundraising is essential

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