LaFayette moves forward with Unite Inc.

Published 6:45 pm Wednesday, March 6, 2019

LaFAYETTE — The LaFayette City Council took another step Monday in ensuring an educational program stays within the city limits.

Councilwoman Tammie Williams motioned to enter into a tentative agreement with the nonprofit education organization Unite Inc., to inhabit the Community House in LaFayette at 324 1st Street.

Unite Inc. was founded by LaFayette native Travis Smith in 2011 to improve freshman male retention rates at Alabama State University. Four years ago, he created a chapter in Chambers County based in LaFayette at the Powell Chapel United Methodist Church.

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Williams pushed for the tentative agreement Monday because she’s learned representatives from Auburn University are pushing for the organization to set up closer to the school.

“I would hate to lose that group of young people to Auburn,” she said. “We need to hurry up and do something because Auburn is at their door knocking.”

Smith said Wednesday that Unite has been working with Auburn’s educational outreach program for the past four years and once the university learned Unite could have a building outside of a religious center, there were conversations about expanding the partnership.

Those latest conversations have been around the Wonderful 100 Program through Auburn and bringing mentors to LaFayette. Smith said the Wonderful 100 program targets rural students to make them strong applicants for Auburn University.

He said the college gets to those students as early as their freshman year, fostering an interest in Auburn while making their strong applicants. He added the university is interested in diversifying its enrollment, and there has been a lack of solid applicants from rural students.

As for the community building in LaFayette, now that the council has tentatively agreed to move forward, Smith said an architect has been contacted to visit the building to see what needs to be brought up to code. He said the city has agreed to bring the building in compliance with the Americans With Disability Act.

Smith said most of the work will come from the kitchen and two bathrooms.

Unite will solicit donations from businesses and corporations to invest within the organization, and in return, Unite will label those partners as “Cornerstone Sponsors.”

Smith hopes the donations from sponsors will offset the cost of materials as the city will provide the labor. The plan is to generate a list of supplies needed to fulfill the work and then ask for specific needs.

Additionally, Smith said he’s asking each councilperson to host a “workday,” meaning they would ask their constituents to help work on the community center alongside city staff.

He said once the center is up and running, it will enhance everything Unite is already doing.

“For us, it is a way to give back. We do have a partnership with Auburn that students will benefit from,” Smith said. “I want to teach our students on the front end to give back.”

Once the organization moved from the Methodist church, Smith said there are more grants available to them because it will be removed from a religious organization. 

Also, Smith wants a space where people can talk about things that matter in the community, as well as a workshop for interview and resume skills for the community. He said sometimes people are reluctant to attend such events if it’s held in a church.

“I want to create a safe space for people to have a dialogue for things that are affecting the community,” he said.

As of 2016, Unite has had nine seniors go through the program accumulating nearly $5.8 million in scholarships, he said. Additionally, students affiliated with Unite throughout Alabama have been accepted to more than 200 different universities worldwide.

“We’ve had nine seniors that have accumulated more scholarship dollars than entire school districts,” he said. “That tells us that what we are doing is working.”

Smith said every senior who has gone through the Unite program has graduated with an academic scholarship. However, to be eligible for the program, those students must complete 50 hours of community service, all of which must be dedicated to the city of LaFayette.

He said students have put in more than 2,500 service hours in three years. That includes help with the daycares, nursing homes and within the schools.