By Todd Cohen
RALEIGH, N.C. — On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-May, at the Wade Edwards Learning Lab in Raleigh, the families and friends of 19 Wake County high-school seniors attended a “Senior Signing Day” to celebrate the students’ hopes for the future.
Unlike signing events at which professional sports teams announce their “picks” of top college athletes, the WELL event underscored the high-school students’ academic achievement: All will graduate this year, with 17 going to college — roughly half will be the first in their families to move on to post-secondary education — and two entering military service.
Over the past four years, all 19 students participated in programs at the WELL, a nonprofit that provides after-school and summer support in academics and youth development to students facing challenges in school and life.
“Schools cannot do this all by themselves,” says Betsey McFarland, executive director of the WELL. “There are not enough teachers, not enough hours, not enough money. They need community programs like ours.”
Formed in 1996 by the late Elizabeth Edwards, who was married to former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, the WELL is named for their son, Wade Edwards, who was killed in an automobile accident in April 1996 at age 16 while a student at Broughton High School.
At first, the WELL provided only a computer lab, tutoring and career workshops, and only for Broughton students.
But in the five years McFarland has headed the organization, it has added programs and expanded beyond Broughton.
In the school year that ended a year ago, the WELL served over 900 students — triple the number five years ago — from 22 high schools, mostly in Wake County.
Operating with an annual budget of $345,000, a staff of three full-time employees, and 13 volunteer tutors, the WELL gets 40 percent of its operating funds from the Lucius Wade Edwards Foundation, a charitable foundation that had $1.87 million in assets in 2015, according to its 990 annual return on file with the IRS.
Catharine “Cate” Edwards, the daughter of John and Elizabeth Edwards, serves on the boards of the Foundation and the WELL.
Located across St. Mary’s Street from Broughton, the WELL houses a 21-desktop computer lab, open weekdays from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., that typically attracts 20 to 25 Broughton students at any given time.
Over the past school year, by appointment, about 120 students from throughout Wake County also worked with volunteer tutors from the WELL.
About 150 Wake students enrolled in a one-day prep course the WELL offers one or two Saturdays a month throughout the school year on the SAT and ACT exams many colleges require for admission.
Another 50 to 60 students participated in Hi-Tech Teens, a workshop the WELL offers one or two Saturdays a month that focuses on computers and computer programming.
To boost youth development, the WELL also offers a weekly program on life skills such as professional etiquette, and a weekly discussion session on social and emotional issues.
It also connects students to community service projects, and assigns them to host is own events and lead tours of its computer lab.
Now, aiming to make its programming more accessible, the WELL hopes to raise $20,000 to $30,000 for a vehicle to pick up students throughout the county and bring them to its offices, or $35,000 to $40,000 to offer its programs in partnership with another organization that serves teens but does not focus on academic support.
To help raise those funds, particularly from individual donors and corporations, it has created a strategic fundraising committee, chaired by its board chair, Jaime Kulow, a vice president at Bank of North Carolina.
“The goal is to encourage more individual donors and more corporate participation around our mission,” MacFarland says.
And with the challenges growing both for schools and at-risk students, advancing that mission is critical, she says.
While the graduation rate in Wake County totals 87 percent, for example, only 65.8 percent of students who graduate enroll in college, she says.
“There’s so much focus on early childhood education and third-grade reading, which is absolutely important,” McFarland says. “But if our students continue to live in poverty, continue to be subject to crises in their life, continue to be in schools that can’t serve some of their greater needs, they can pass all the third-grade reading tests they want, but they’re still going to get to high school and they’re still going to be behind.”