A new foundation in Bessemer hopes to increase high school graduation rates while tackling a troubling trend.
“I don’t want to seem bleak,” Marquita Hall says, “but we are facing an epidemic in the inner cities. A lot of the young boys are throwing their lives away for no apparent reason.”
To do something about it, Hall founded the Foundation for Inner-City Enrichment (FFICE) in 2007, a mentoring and scholarship program for high school sophomores in Bessemer.
Hall says she never planned to be the executive director of such an organization, let alone one she founded. In 2007 she had just graduated Samford University with a bachelor’s in political science. Prepped to go to law school, she started working in Bessemer Municipal Court in her hometown.
While there, she noticed something. “It struck me as odd that a lot of the people who had cases were kids, high school age,” she says. “I was like, ‘How are you getting in trouble? Where are your parents?’”
That moment marked the beginning of her unplanned career. “I was like, ‘I really want to do something. I need to see what I can do to make a difference for these kids because they’re falling by the wayside.’”
She had one problem: she knew nothing about nonprofits. “I did a lot of research,” she says. “I did a lot of writing, a lot of reading and a lot of reaching out.”
After many late nights, she had a business plan. She submitted it and received her 501(c)3 status.
Six years later, Hall’s efforts focus on Bessemer City High School, where she works closely with the faculty to identify students who would be well served by the program. “We learn which kids are borderline,” she says, “which kids need more attention, and oftentimes the teachers guide us to the students who are right on the line, [who], if they just had some coaxing, somebody to help them along, wouldn’t go down a path that is almost too hard to come back from.”
Hall herself mentors a group of girls from the Southside Homes, part of the Bessemer Housing Authority. “For the most part, they don’t have a lot of role models that they can look up to,” Hall says.
Once, Hall asked the girls about their day at school, expecting them to talk about what they learned in math class. Instead, one young woman showed Hall cell phone videos of a riot that happened. “All the kids just decided to stand up and leave class,” the student told her.
Mostly, Hall says she tries to connect with the girls, engaging them as a friend rather than an advisor. “[I try to] tell them that it’s a lot more to life than shoes and clothes and cars. That’s where a lot of their heads are.”
Currently the program serves seven students, and Hall describes it as grassroots. “It’s me and my board,” she says. “It’s basically us in the streets talking to people.”
While out meeting people, she often talks to parents who want to encourage their child’s passion but who do not have the time or resources to do so. They ask if she can help, and she connects the child to a mentor with the same interest, one at a time.
Funding is also one at time. “I meet people,” she says. “They’re like, ‘I really like what you’re doing. Here’s $10 or $11 dollars to help with the mission.’” Hall does not mind the small donations. She says, “Honestly, it means more than a grant of $100,000. I would prefer a contact and $10 over $100,000 and no real communication or relationship.”
Hall is prepped to unveil an expanded organization in 2014 with a new board, new logo and new website. She also hopes to find office space and widen her circle of mentors.
Finding mentors can be tough because she asks for a yearlong time commitment, the length of the student’s 10th-grade year. “We don’t want a situation where the mentor agrees and then can’t follow up with the commitment,” Hall says. “These kids have seen that too often.”
Beside her for the interview, her supporter Jay Spratling, owner of Facilities Corporate Management, nods. He says, “I grew up with an extremely meager background, and I know the importance of having one person that cares, extending a hand to help you.”
Right now, Spratling works in an advisory capacity for FFICE, providing funds and space. The two of them met at a networking mixer in 2012 and reconnected a year later. “I saw the passion that she still had for the organization,” he says.
The work is important to him, too. “When we start bringing boys in, I’m probably going to mentor some of the young men. I would love to do that. Some kids, all they need is a chance or opportunity.”
Spratling is an example himself, his speech coming from a place of certainty, not needing to raise its voice to be heard. “The people who are raised here can go out and change the world. You never know where the next senator or mayor or banker or businessperson may come from. They may just need a pat on the back and a little bit of encouragement.”
Hall hopes to encourage more people. “I want to do more good. I want to reach more children, reach more parents, encourage more parental involvement. These are our goals for the future. One day at a time.”