When someone asks me “what does the Chamber do, anyway?” there are a long list of potential answers. Promotes the development of a healthy business community… advocates for public policy that helps recruit high-paying jobs… executes leadership programs that prepare the next generation of leaders… the list could go on and on.
But my favorite answer is always “the Chamber is in the quality-of-life business.”
The Chamber strives to support Decatur and Morgan County to obtain those pieces, all of which make our community a great place to live. And that begins with school systems that partner with other groups in the community who want the best opportunities for each and every child. That is a pledge this Chamber makes each day.
The Chamber is engaged in education issues because we want young people to be prepared for fulfilling jobs and bright futures in our ever-changing global economy. Whether that means college or careers following high school, we must give each child every opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential. When a community doesn’t fulfill that calling, we are letting down our future. We can’t afford to do that.
This Chamber has a long and fruitful history when it comes to working with our education partners. When business and industry leaders shared the need for more skilled trade training, we partnered with our school and community college systems to build relationships and address workforce training gaps. This led to the Chamber and Calhoun Community College collaborating on Summer Welding & Electrical Technology (SWeETy) Camp for ninth through twelfth grade girls with interest in STEM fields like electrical and welding technologies. The free camp provides hands-on experience and helps students develop problem solving skills and teamwork as they participate in instructor-led projects, field trips, and interact with women role models in the industry. Both camp sessions, once announced, fill up and feature a waiting list of students from across north central Alabama. These young ladies are our future workforce and business owners.
When more and more research showed the connection between early childhood education and successful transitions into middle and high school, the Chamber developed “Starting Strong.” A collection of leaders in education, small business, industry, government and social work, spearheaded a multi-year campaign to expand accessibility for pre-k with fundraising, grant writing, public policy advocacy and communication with the goal of each child having the chance to attend. To date, nearly 500 more students in Morgan County have access to pre-k than before the campaign began in our three school systems, faith communities, and non-profit learning environments. “Starting Strong” is touted by the State of Alabama as the model for successful pre-k expansion. These students are our future leaders and innovators, therefore offering programs such as “Starting Strong” is critical to their success.
We all – from business owners to city officials to the Greatest Generation – have a vested interest in the success of our schools and young people. When businesses consider locating to a community, they consider how committed the community is to its schools and whether they produce a highly trained workforce. Those new businesses expand our tax base which pays for benefits such as paved roads, public parks, and first responders. In residential recruitment, potential home buyers (especially those who have children) want to know their schools are supported and well-funded. Regardless, whether they have children or grandchildren in the schools, people want to live in areas where their schools are cared for and given top priority. Successful schools are a game changer for a community.
We all have a stake in the success of our schools, and we must fulfill that unwritten calling to make sure the next generation has it better than we had it ourselves. That can only happen if we partner across boundaries, think outside the box and understand we all can play a role. When we stay focused on the success of our young people, nothing but success will follow.
So, when I tell people the Chamber is in the quality-of-life business, education and a commitment to our children’s future is the foundation.
Willie LaFavor is president of Contractor Service & Fabrication, Inc., in Decatur and serves as the Chamber's vice chair of workforce development and education. For more about the Chamber's workforce and education initiatives, click here.