People say investing in children is investing in the future, but for the Williamson County Association of Realtors, it’s also investing in the present.
“People talk about (how) these students are our future of our county, and I have found, as you talk to them and as you read their applications, they are what our county is all about presently, not just the future,” says Jordan Vaughn, president of WCAR.
In 2007, Vaughn became one of the first trustees of the Realtor Good Works Foundation, a philanthropic arm of WCAR that provides college scholarships for public school students from Williamson County. The foundation sponsors an annual student art competition, holds workdays on school campuses to help paint or clean classrooms and more.
Three years ago, the foundation also wrote a $30,000 check to the Franklin Special School District for playground upgrades on its campuses.
“The Realtor community as a whole is very passionate about giving back to the community,” Vaughn says. “We realize this community gives so much to us because it attracts so many.”
Jennifer Bickerstaff, the current president of the foundation’s board of trustees, shares the Realtors are passionate about giving back to students, as the schools provide for WCAR in a unique way.
“We feel like giving back to the kids here in Williamson County and the schools because we feel like people move here a lot because of the schools, so it’s our way of giving back to who supports us,” she says.
The foundation typically holds a few fundraisers throughout the year — a golf tournament, a Tacos & Trivia event and wine pulls — for its scholarships, service projects and other donations, but the biggest focus, Bickerstaff said, is the scholarships.
Each year, students send in applications to be considered for one of the foundation’s several annual scholarships, awarded based on academic achievement, financial need, extracurricular activity and character. Bickerstaff says the scholarship committee members are always inspired when they read through the applications.
“Everybody sits around with a box of Kleenex and reads applications, and we cry because these students just pour out their heart why they feel like they need a scholarship,” she says. “Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, it’s Williamson County. It’s wealthy.’ People don’t know what’s really going on.”
While she doesn’t have kids, Bickerstaff says the scholarship recipients have become like her “stepchildren” as she keeps up with their college journey and achievements.
Vaughn, who has daughters in middle and elementary school, says his involvement in the foundation has positively impacted his relationship with his own children. He is sometimes able to pull from some of the experiences that students share as he teaches his daughters about life, and hearing stories from students has allowed him to realize and empathize with the fact that growing up often has major challenges — even if, as an adult, going to school with designated recess every day may sound more appealing than full-time jobs.
“You realize that they carry a lot of the same amount of weight that we do. Their weight just looks a little different,” he says. “It’s made me realize that, with my own daughter, she’s still got a lot of burdens on her. It just looks different than my burdens, so you talk through things more and you show a lot more mercy.”
Of course, like most businesses and organizations, the Realtor Good Works Foundation has had to make adjustments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Its Tacos & Trivia event was canceled in the spring, and fundraising has been a little more challenging and more grassroots oriented, but the organization was still able to award four $5,000 scholarships to upcoming college freshmen. It will also still hold its golf scramble on Monday, Oct. 19.
A few years ago, the foundation opened its scholarship program to former recipients to receive a repeat scholarship, and for all her college years, including this year, University of Tennessee, Knoxville senior Carolanna Gatlin has been one of those recurring recipients.
“It was this scholarship that made me genuinely comfortable going to a big state school,” she says. “It also made me feel like I was doing the right thing by investing in my education, that other people thought that way as well.”
Gatlin heard about the Realtor Good Works Foundation through her high school guidance counselor, and when she applied during her senior year at Centennial High School, she shared with the foundation how she aspired to be a first-generation college student in her family. And when she aimed, she shot for the moon. She is on track to graduate with a degree in kinesiology and minor in psychology with her sights set on a doctoral occupational therapy degree.
She has remained in contact with the Realtors at the foundation throughout her college career.
“I made sure that after my freshman year I sent them an email and a thank-you card, just updating them on my progress in school and all the things I was able to do due to their investment,” she says. “You didn’t just give some nameless face some money to go and waste it at school. I took this very seriously, and I went out and I did this and this and this, and I thank you for that.”
She shares that thanks in part to the foundation’s scholarships, she was able to set an example for her younger brother, who will follow her to UT next year while she moves on to a graduate program.
“I can’t wait to come back whenever I have my doctorate and be like, ‘Thank you for seeing that I could get here and helping me get here,’” Gatlin says. “Due to their continual support, I haven’t had to take out student loans for my undergrad, so that’s amazing and set me up to feel very, very comfortable going to grad school.”