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Doing More in Mississippi

Jobs for America’s Graduates offers hope for potential dropouts by furthering education and launching careers.

Bryanna Brown just needed a chance.

As a teen-aged mom, with little family support, she needed someone to point her in the right direction. She found that help courtesy of Jobs for America’s Graduates.

“I had the support system to push me to strive harder, to work harder, to push me through school and graduate and everything,” said the West Point, Miss., native. “I’m very proud.”

Jobs for America’s Graduates, more widely known as JAG, is a state-based national non-profit organization dedicated to preventing dropouts among young people who are most at-risk.

Brown’s chapter, Jobs for Mississippi Graduates, Inc., is led by Executive Director Ramona Seabron-Williams.

“Our program is one where we mentor the young people first and foremost,” Seabron-Williams said. “They come to us with all kinds of issues as it relates to their family life. They often have barriers academically – for example, they are usually one or two grades behind their cohorts or they do not have the support at home to actually remain in school and graduate.”

For nearly three decades, JAG has helped at-risk students achieve high school diplomas and embark on college education or find careers. The mentorship comes from volunteers who donate time and energy for the next generation.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has seen the successes. He has invested his own time, and currently serves as the chairman for the organization’s board of directors.

Bryant can quote the success rates by memory: “About 87 percent of the time we make sure (graduates of the program are) in institutions of higher learning or they are on to their careers,” Bryant said. “It’s a pretty remarkable program.”

For students like Bryanna Brown, a little encouragement goes a long way.

“They made it easier to go through it because they were like, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t lose faith,’” she said.

Regions Bank’s Community Affairs Manager Charlita Cloman also serves on the Jobs For Mississippi board. “We reach out to these children, we bring them in, and we teach them job readiness, job development – sometimes financial literacy – and we mentor these young students.”

To make the program a success involves a deeper dig.

To motivate students, you need to reach them earlier.

“This is about life support for kids. It doesn’t just start in high school. It starts long before,” said Arthur DuCote, Regions Mississippi Area President.

According to DuCote, the idea is simple enough. Find students early, often in middle school. Then, by providing a support network, students find easier paths to college and careers.

“If you think about it, there is no better investment that we can make than investing in a child,” DuCote said. “Regions could not be more proud to participate.”

JAG uses metrics to gauge which students are best suited for the program. Barriers can include income, lack of support at home, high absenteeism or low academic achievement. Many of the applicants come from single-parent homes, live with other family members or are on government-supported food programs at school.

“These are kids that wouldn’t get an opportunity to do something great if someone didn’t step in and say, ‘Let me give you a little help,’” said Janet Parker, the head of Corporate HR Support and Regions and a member of the national JAG board.

“This program augments what’s going on in the classroom. They get instruction, encouragement, structure – it’s amazing. And the graduation rate is equally amazing. Even after they graduate, the specialist stays in contact for a year. Whether they’re in college, the military or a have a job, they’re still getting guidance and support.”

Regions’ connections don’t stop in Mississippi. Regions’ leaders in the JAG program include Latrisha Jemison in Nashville. Mike Scott in New Orleans and Mike Hart in Greater St. Louis. Throughout the JAG network, Regions associates volunteer their time at JAG conferences and in the classroom. In Ferguson, Mo., Regions provides funding for an in-school specialist.

Opportunity and a little encouragement go a long way. The state of Mississippi is filled with success stories – students who initially saw only bleak futures but, given a second chance, got degrees, and settled into productive careers.

“I enjoyed the class,” said Austin Vardaman, a local student who participates in the program. “I enjoyed how (the mentor) ran the class because she said ‘standards.’ Those standards were excellence and success, and you had no choice but to achieve them.”
Bryant also sees companies like Regions that have gotten involved in making this program a success.

“People look at corporations as big, unfeeling entities. That’s just not Regions at all,” Bryant said. “Regions gets involved in the community. They care about these students, they care about the JAG program and they’re actually changing lives.

“For a bank – or any corporation – that’s a good day’s work.”

Watch the Doing More in Mississippi video