SPAN Program celebrates 40 years

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Picured, from left, SPAN Program Coordinator Kevin Blackwell (kneeling), SPAN counselors Ricky Johnson and Reggie Watson, former SPAN students Brittany Barfield, Barbie Covington, Taylor Smith, SPAN teachers Davita Roberson and Holly Skaggs, Etowah County Sheriff Jonathon Horton and former SPAN student Jorge Cantellano celebrate the program’s 40th anniversary of serving local youth in the Etowah County community. Katie Bohannon/Messenger.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

One local program celebrated a milestone last Saturday, honoring the men and women who collectively share its revolutionary mission to enhance the community, beginning with investing in those individuals who represent Etowah County’s future – its youth.

For forty years, the Special Programming for Achievement Network (SPAN) welcomed students into its doors and hearts with ceaseless encouragement, equipping them with the tools, confidence and support necessary to chart a prosperous course in life.

On September 18, instrumental figures gathered at The Venue at Coosa Landing to share their personal connections to SPAN, exemplifying a timeless philosophy of giving that emerges as an inspiration to all.

Initially coined the CITY Program, the SPAN Program flourished from the seeds Ed Earnest planted years ago that countless counselors, educators and advocates watered with adept dedication. As a young adult in a juvenile system, when Earnest grew older he felt a pursuit of change was necessary for students in similar situations. Earnest considered the path to the students’ success paved with rehabilitation rather than punishment and established a program that ignited decades of provision for those most in need.

Partnerships with local businesses and resource centers coincide with SPAN’s focus, which aims to prevent the incarceration of at-risk youth through methods such as counseling and education. Originally designed to receive youth on probation, SPAN collaborates with surrounding school systems to enroll students who simply need another opportunity. In addition to the Department of Human Resources, Eagle Rock Boys Ranch and the Juvenile Probation Office, SPAN accepts referrals for students ages 12 through 17 from the Etowah County, Gadsden City and Attalla City school systems.

Once a student enrolls in SPAN, he or she receives personalized academic and social training that improves his or her life skills, establishing a solid foundation upon which that student can build a resolute future. As a non-residential, co-educational, comprehensive approach to meeting the needs of both at-risk youth and their families, SPAN addresses behavioral and educational goals alike. This well-rounded strategy affects all areas of a student’s life, aiding in their personal growth as individuals while working toward academic achievements.

Academically, SPAN strives to return students to public school in or near their correct grade, or help students achieve the equivalent of a high school diploma through passing General Educational Development exams (earning a GED). Students work at their own pace, receiving one-on-one individualized instructions from teachers. There is never any out-of-pocket expense for students enrolled in SPAN – from covering the cost of the GED to school supplies to clothing and food – whatever a student might need, the staff of SPAN ensure they receive.

Behaviorally, SPAN assesses and achieves goals through student and family counseling. Though one-hour group sessions each day, students explore an environment where they feel free to craft their social skills both professionally and personally, while discovering their purposes in life.

According to SPAN’s website, traditional services and training include assessments, success plans and GED training, academic remediation, individual and group counseling, behavioral modification, parent assistance and involvement, monthly evaluations of progress, transitional follow-up services, credit recovery, daily group topics, dealing with peer pressure, improving communication skills, recognizing family stressors, building self-esteem, problem solving and decision making skills, anger management, bullying and curfews, nutrition, risk factors of drug abuse, money management and budgeting, identifying school stressors and comprehension and addressing grief and mental health issues.

SPAN’s involvement in its students’ lives never ends with obtaining a GED. Through its efforts to prepare students to become productive members of society, SPAN advances its contributions even further. The program provides a smooth transition from high school to college, educating students on financial aid and grants, while offering enrollment in Gadsden State Community College.

Current SPAN Program Coordinator Kevin Blackwell’s passion for the organization dates back over 20 years, beginning in 1998. While working at Mountain View Hospital, Blackwell was encouraged to apply for a counseling position at the CITY (now SPAN) Program – a profession he wanted to pursue since high school, to help children succeed. When accepted to become part of the team, his commitment to the betterment of youth aligned with SPAN’s mission wholeheartedly, inspiring him to remain with the program for decades.

“Every single student deserves an opportunity,” said Blackwell. “If we’re in a race, we’re not all starting at the same line – some are starting way ahead, some are starting way behind. But everybody deserves the opportunity to run the race.”

Blackwell commended his fellow SPAN staff members counselors Reggie Watson and Ricky Johnson and teachers Davita Roberson and Holly Skaggs for their incredible efforts to assist anyone who walks through their doors. Blackwell shared that his team remains determined to cheer every student across the finish line, regardless of what it takes.

“Some kids you just have to carry,” said Blackwell. “Some you have to put on your back and carry to that finish line, and [the staff] is willing to do that.”

Blackwell, Watson, Johnson, Roberson and Skaggs joined public officials, commissioners, mayors, advisory board members, supporters and previous students during the program’s 40th anniversary celebration, to highlight the importance of the program in the community. Program advocates Etowah County Probate Judge Scott Hassell, Alabama State SPAN Coordinator Charles Foley, Etowah County Sheriff Jonathon Horton and City of Gadsden Public Works Assistant Director Mike Hilton all attested to the invaluable resources SPAN provides for local youth.

“There’s an abundance of descriptions all across our land telling you what’s wrong with our nation, communities, families and schools, but I am honored and privileged tonight to stand before a group of people such as you, and to be a part of and celebrate an organization like the SPAN Program that illustrates what is right with our education system, communities and nation,” said Hassell.

Foley acknowledged the original staff of the CITY Program, some of whom sat in the audience. He reiterated Blackwell’s emphasis on partnerships, noting that it takes the entire community rallying together to ensure the SPAN Program remains effective. Program Coordinator Phoenix Rudd, counselors Lester Crowder, Suzie Krueger, Remona Robertson, teachers Angela Hood and Debra McKinney and Office Manager Margaret Ellis embodied the program’s first staff.

Horton expressed his support for the SPAN Program, illustrating the importance of a strong relationship between the sheriff’s office and an organization that nurtures the heart of its community. He advocated for the program’s policy of second chances, noting that even third, fourth or fifth chances as extensions of mercy and generosity instill the belief that caring individuals influence others in a positive and profound manner. Horton noted that as long as it is possible, the sheriff’s office intends to continue its current contributions and donations to the program – and then some.

“There is not too much we can pour into this SPAN group,” said Horton. “This is at the center of what our communities need. One man said to me, ‘Your actions speak so loud, I can hardly hear what you’re saying.’ I can go to [SPAN] meetings and their actions speak loud. It’s about caring for these kids and investing into their lives so they have that opportunity to further themselves and be productive members of this community. Second chance, third chance and fourth chance people, if they make it, end up being the greatest people – because not only have they achieved, but because of the lessons they’ve learned along the way…with Kevin getting a GED, going on to Gadsden State and from there, becoming whatever the Lord plans for them to be. I call Kevin [and his staff] pathfinders – they help people find their path.”

Seventeen-year-old Taylor Smith led a series of former students who delivered powerful testimonies regarding their time spent at SPAN. When tragedy struck Smith’s life and her father passed away, she felt alone and broken. Apart from her sister, she did not possess a close relationship with her other family members and dropped out of public school to pursue home schooling. After falling behind academically, Smith feared she would become another statistic…until she discovered SPAN and made the choice to change her life.

“God put it on my heart that I had to do something,” said Smith. “He showed me that I was worth more than the life I was living and the choices I was making…that there was more out there to my life. I picked myself up from rock bottom and enrolled into SPAN. As soon as I walked in, I felt so loved and cared for by more people than just my sister. They opened their arms to me, showed me they believed in me and proved to me I wasn’t just some statistic or another number on paper – because they truly care about each student, and every student was placed there for a reason.”

Despite the struggles that arose, Smith persevered and obtained her GED. She now has a full-time job that she loves and is pursuing her dreams while furthering her education toward a career in phlebotomy.

“SPAN is one of the biggest blessings I’ve ever received – another chance at life,” said Smith.

Smith shared that the personal connections she forged while at SPAN proved lifelong, with the staff becoming more than teachers or counselors, but a genuine family to her. She thanked (Davita) Roberson for becoming her mother figure through tears and laughter and contagious smiles as someone whose encouragement uplifted Smith. Roberson never gave up on Smith and never allowed Smith to give up on herself.

Barbie Covington attested to the fact that everyone falls short from time to time, with the simplest moments in life throwing people off track. A lack of motivation and counseling from home inhibited Covington from remaining on course, but a newfound desire to accomplish her goals magnified with SPAN and its caring staff that urged her to press forward. Today, Covington represents SPAN’s direct impact on its students, standing before her former teachers and counselors as a mother, wife and manager of a worldwide company.

“During my time [at SPAN], I learned so much,” said Covington. “I felt that I had a set path for once in my life. They helped set my goals, and with those goals came discipline and responsibilities, which helped me grow. The best feeling was the sense that someone knew you as more than a hard-headed teen, more than a mark on an attendance chart or a score on a final exam.”

“They understand the pathway to success is not always a straight line upward, but a zig-zag of ups and downs. They refuse to give up on you or allow you to give on yourself. The program pushed me to be a better me – not only with academics but motivated me and built my confidence and character. I’ve never been a part of a program that has such a caring attitude or atmosphere.”

Following his participation in SPAN, Jorge Cantellano became the first person in his family who attended Gadsden State, where he obtained his autobody degree. After working at WJ Body Shop for 15 years, he announced that he has become his own boss, with he and a friend purchasing a franchise and establishing their own business.

Brittany Barfield enrolled in SPAN at 15 as a confused and angry teenager without guidance and a support system to help direct her. Following juvenile probation, Barfield found herself at SPAN, where she received her GED and enrolled in Gadsden State, graduating with an Associate’s Degree in Human Services. Today, Barfield is a case manager at Head Start, a mother of three and pursuing her Bachelor’s in Social Work at Jacksonville State University. While Barfield learned a magnitude of knowledge during her time at SPAN, she shared one significant realization that occurred to her years later as an adult.

“I broke the chain of addiction,” said Barfield. “It was at the SPAN Program that I learned I could break that chain. I didn’t think I had a choice…I didn’t know that I could do anything different, but I did. I was taught that being a child of circumstance didn’t have to dictate my future. If we can do anything to keep anything alive in this community, it definitely needs to be the SPAN program. Without our youth, we have no future.”

Six years ago, the SPAN Program served 66 children. The evening of the celebration, 119 balloons filtered through The Venue, each holding the name of a student the program assisted, representing the greatest number of students SPAN ever enrolled.

“You can’t get to 119 without starting with number one,” said Blackwell. “When you look around and see the balloons in the floor, we’re talking about individual people. Everyone doesn’t start in the same spot – some people need a little help.”

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