January 2010

Man on a Mission

Author: Courtney Hampson Naughton | Photographer: Anne

“Strive for Success”; “Chamber Recognizes Year’s Best”; “Just One of the Guys”; “Intriguing Islanders”; “Good Men”; “Fruits of His Labor”…These are just a handful of the headlines that decorate the walls in Tim Singleton’s office at Hilton Head Island High School. After spending time getting to know Singleton, his colleagues, his students and his supporters, you realize that no headline is an exaggeration.

The man

Singleton’s story didn’t begin as a headline. It began in the very halls that surround his office today. It was the late ’80s; he was a high school football star, athletically gifted, and he “loved to walk these halls.” He also loved his teachers. Whether they were laughing at his jokes or giving him a D, he remembers the impact they made.

As college loomed, when his guidance counselor (shame on her) told him, “You don’t need to fill out the SAT application, you need to fill out a McDonald’s application,” the jokes were over. He didn’t realize at the time that he was being insulted, but that insult paved the way.

Singleton was recruited by Clemson University, who sent him to Taft College, a community college in California, to work on his academics. So there he was, “a little black boy from the East Coast on the West Coast” in what he describes as the worst experience ever.

Soon after his arrival in California, he was on the phone with his coaches and mentors back home, asking for their help, begging, “Find me a place to go to school.” One semester later, he was back in South Carolina, attending Newberry College. Newberry was a small, liberal arts college in a town that was no stranger to racism—a town where blacks and whites stayed on their own side of the tracks. Literally. An experience that made Tim “the man he is today,” he said. “I learned to deal with different types of people from all walks of life.”

There, Singleton was a star quarterback on the football team, breaking records and receiving publicity for his prowess on the field, yet doing nothing in the classroom. And it wasn’t until one of Singleton’s professors told him just that, and embarrassed him into the realization that he needed to get his act together, that he finally developed a full understanding of the college experience—the need to balance work and play.

Singleton was the first in his family to graduate from college, and with that degree in business and sports management, he was off and running—right back to his hometown where his first job, as transition coordinator with the school district, was waiting. In that role, Singleton really began to make his mark, helping at-risk students bridge the gap between high school and the “afterlife,” whether it was college, the military or the workforce. Working collaboratively with Technical College of the Lowcountry’s Excel program and the privately funded Strive program on Hilton Head Island, he eventually merged the philosophies and created Strive to Excel in the fall of 1999. His first class, the class of 2000, saw all 16 seniors in the program go on to college. With a 100 percent success rate in the first year, it was imperative to keep this ball rolling.

The mission

Admittedly, when Singleton headed off to college, he had no idea what to expect. Not coincidentally, the mission of Strive to Excel (S2E) is to prepare students and their families to make informed decisions about postsecondary life and career choices by enhancing self-esteem, providing academic enrichment, and developing social skills.

While it may seem obvious to some of us that we will graduate from high school, go to college and get a job, that is not the case for hundreds of students right here in our own backyard. If students and their parents aren’t being exposed to a conversation about “what’s next,” they aren’t going to telepathically find the answers.

And that is where Strive to Excel becomes so valuable. The program focuses on academics—tutoring, mentoring, college preparation, parent-teacher-student counseling; social skills—public speaking, emotional stability, time management, etiquette; and college and career exposure—internships, job-shadowing, résumé writing and field trips to colleges and universities.

But, perhaps even more important than all of the above is that Strive to Excel looks at each student individually with a goal of understanding everything about that child: where he or she lives, who’s at home, who’s paying the bills. This is more than academics, this is community—a community that deals with difficult issues every day—a community that recognizes that what is happening at home will have a direct impact on what is happening at school. If a family needs help buying groceries, S2E is there. If a student needs new glasses, S2E is there. If a parent can’t make a mortgage payment, S2E is there. If you need something, S2E is there. “It is a human thing to want to help,” Singleton said. “We want to help.”

But before you think that Strive to Excel is giving away the farm, know this. You have to want it. You have to work for it. You have to make things happen. Key to the success of this program is buy-in from the students and their families. And if you buy-in, and you complete all that is required of you, you will receive scholarship money. (In 10 years, S2E has distributed $300,000 in scholarship money.) But the reward is far greater than just the money.

Amy Metzger, Singleton’s executive assistant, student advisor, girl Friday, event planner, fundraiser, and all around “right hand,” says it best: “The program has become a ‘home away from home’ for so many of our kids—a place for the kids to escape or vent, to feel accepted and nurtured when the day seems heavy and hard, a safe haven. We encourage the students to come by our office any time. Our door is always open for them, and we encourage them to ask if they are in need, be it academic or personal. Their respect and admiration for the program is a lifelong gift to all of us. The program gives them hope when perhaps they felt they had none. I have seen firsthand the difference Strive to Excel has made in the lives of our students, academically, emotionally and socially, preparing them for a successful and bright future!”

Selling hope

There is no “typical” student in Strive to Excel. S2E is reaching students of diverse backgrounds, each of them better for the experience. According to Singleton, “Color goes out the window when you are talking about helping people. Color goes out the window when you are selling hope.”

And, he does need to sell it.

Strive to Excel is a non-profit 501©(3) organization, which means its support comes from local benefactors, community partnerships, regional and national foundations, and local volunteers, each of whom has to believe that Strive to Excel is offering hope.

The VanLandingham Rotary supports S2E because, in simple terms, they show results. “They have created a small unit—a mentoring unit—within a very large school that prevents students from getting lost,” said Rotarian Lew Wessell. “Strive to Excel is an organization that achieves things. When we see continued results, we know we’ve made a good investment.” And the Rotary’s investment continues to grow each year. More than a monetary contribution, the Rotary members work as mentors and have even partnered with S2E on their “Rotary Readers” program, in which Rotary members and S2E students read to first graders. The relationship is not a one-way street, and that just increases the value.

Simon Fraser of the Heritage Foundation feels strongly that S2E is filling a much needed niche. “I pick up the paper and I recognize the names of people who went to school with my children, and they are on the wrong track, getting arrested,” he said. “But Strive to Excel is successfully mentoring kids through high school, pushing them to have a plan, whether it is college or work, and making them into contributing members of society. Strive to Excel creates a better citizen.”

Tom Gardo has known Singleton since his high school days, and serves as a volunteer on the S2E board of directors. Tom calls Singleton an innovator, a motivator. “Tim has a big heart. He wants to do the best for other people—it’s his strength,” said Gardo. “He loves his community and could have done anything, but he chose to pass his gift along right here where he grew up. We are lucky.”

As a board member, Gardo plays counselor to Singleton, applying a business perspective to the non-profit organization and opening the doors of fundraising. Singleton regards Gardo as his mentor. And there is something poetic about that as Singleton’s legacy is as a mentor to so many.

The lasting impact

When Singleton talks about his former students, it is apparent that he truly knows them. While we were together, he flipped through a binder of student records from years past to show me the level of detail they maintain on each student—and with every flip of a page he had another story.

“Oh, Rebecca. She was loud, obnoxious, had bad English, spoke out of turn. She was lost. She participated in Strive to Excel and became the first person in her family to ever graduate from high school—high school! We achieved our mission. She is now a productive, tax-paying member of society.”

Flip.

“West Point,” Singleton says as he taps the page and a huge smile spreads across his face. “I remember the day he came into the office waving that West Point acceptance letter in the air.”

Flip.

“Sierra. I never thought I reached her until she sent me a letter thanking me. It’s still there on my desk.”

Flip.

“Liz! This girl raised her SAT score by 300 points. That’s unheard of!”

Flip.

“I receive college graduation invitations, wedding invitations. I never go. I want to, but if I start …” Singleton trails off.

In their words

Chris Monroe graduated from Hilton Head Island High School in 2004. He participated in Strive to Excel at his mother’s insistence. “She saw the benefits of it when I entered high school. It was the first year S2E had opened up the program to underclassmen, and I was in the first group that completed four years in the program,” he said.

And while he ponders the most valuable lesson he learned, it isn’t because there weren’t lessons; it is that there were so many. He credits Singleton’s “key words and phrases” that he drilled into them frequently: “Stay proactive” and “Shoot for the moon.” Monroe believes that perhaps the lesson best learned is to do just that.

“I can recall my first time hearing Mr. Singleton speak; he kept reiterating and reinforcing the idea of being ‘proactive’ (his favorite word). So, when I hear ‘Strive to Excel’ or ‘Tim Singleton,’ I would tell you ‘stay proactive.’ This one word can tell you a lot of what is defined in the culture of S2E. The thought of what you want to be when you grow up or how to get there can be very intimidating. S2E gave me options to think about and the help and guidance to get where I wanted to go. It taught me to be assertive and stay focused,” he said.

“‘Shoot for the moon’ is a phrase that was constantly reinforced by Mr. Singleton. He would tell us to set our goals high, because anything is possible. But S2E taught me that it’s not just about setting goals, it about defining them too. Anyone can set a goal, but you need to take it one step further and plot out the course for how you plan to get there,” Monroe continued.

It has been five years since Monroe’s graduation, and he is constantly calling upon reminders from his involvement with Strive to Excel. “This goes to show the impact it has had on my life and the way I approach my future,” he said. “One thing to understand is that S2E is there to guide you and educate you, but in the end, it is you who has to want it. And S2E helped to build that desire to succeed. The name pretty much says it all: Strive to Excel.”

Monroe has since graduated from Clemson University (class of ’09) with a double degree in construction science and management (CSM) and architecture with a minor in business administration. “S2E was there to help me to get my foot out the door, by preparing me for what to expect in college,” he said. “Going into college, I knew the responsibility would be on my shoulders, and I can give credit to S2E for emphasizing the importance of time management—work first and play later, because there is never a deadline to have fun.”

Monroe also credits his mother saying, “For a single mother, raising three kinds can be a lot. Much of her work ethic and determination has carried with me throughout the years and has made me into the person I am today.” After graduation, Monroe was hired by Holder Construction Company as their preconstruction/operations engineer. Mom should indeed be proud.

Kendra Franklin grew up on the island and graduated from Hilton Head Island High School and S2E in 2008. She attributes her inspiration to apply for the program to Singleton. “He walked into the middle school and he just commanded respect. It was clear that he was serious about his mission, and he had an aura about him that made people want to listen,” she said. Franklin remarked that getting a room full of middle schoolers to be quiet and to get an assembly to start on time is unheard of, but once Singleton walked into the room, everyone was listening. So, Franklin applied for the program and started as a seventh grader with a C average.

With each passing year, she gained more confidence and a better understanding of who she was, which yielded big results. Franklin’s C average jumped to an A-B average. And she found her voice. When she wasn’t running the basketball court with the varsity team, she was the commentator for the junior varsity games. She learned that she liked public speaking and sought that same respect that Singleton got that first day in the middle school auditorium.

Franklin also learned the importance of people and relationships. “I bonded with people I never would have met if it wasn’t for Strive to Excel,” she said. “We were extremely diverse groups, yet I ended up knowing my Strive classmates better than some of my friends because of the time and effort we put in together.”

Franklin said the most valuable lesson for her was that “good things come with hard work.” She is still working hard as a sophomore at the University of South Carolina where she is majoring in broadcasting with an eye toward radio or television and the opportunity to use that confident voice that Strive to Excel helped her find.

Bluffton born and bred, Chane Brown graduated from Hilton Head Island High School and Strive to Excel in 2002. He credits S2E with showing him that “there is opportunity.” Brown first heard about S2E through his football teammates. Then he heard a little more about the college preparation that the program offers, and he was sold.

It is easy to get lost in the process of college applications, financial aid, SATs, campus tours, but Brown found that S2E helped him to narrow his focus. “Strive to Excel took the big picture, the wealth of information, and helped me find the information that I needed, that I was looking for,” he said.

When asked about the impact Singleton made on his high school experience, Brown was at no loss for words. “Mr. Singleton is a great person, easy to talk to, laid back yet still an authority figure. I feel like he can reach anybody,” he said. But, it wasn’t just a relationship with Singleton that formed. Brown made connections with his fellow classmates—bonds that won’t be broken. “I know I can rely on them for anything,” he said.

With the tools in hand, Brown found his focus, went on to University of South Carolina, received his undergraduate degree in physical education and is currently pursuing his master’s degree, also in physical education. And he is weighing his future, which he knows will include coaching, teaching, and involvement in youth enrichment programs, with a goal of giving back to the community that he calls home.

The bottom line

At 10 years old, the program boasts a 96 percent success rate, meaning 24 of every 25 Strive to Excel students go on to college. The remaining one enters the military, trade school, or begins his or her career. Two hundred-sixty students have graduated from the program since the 1999/2000 school year.

Since that time, the program has expanded well beyond the halls of Hilton Head Island High School. This year, nearly 500 kids are participating in S2E at schools including Hilton Head Island High School, Bluffton High School, Hilton Head Middle School, McCracken Middle School, and the two elementary schools on the island.

All of this is a direct result of the tenacity and drive of S2E’s fearless leader, Tim Singleton. Admittedly, his approach is not always the smoothest. “The gift isn’t always in the right paper, but I love what I do; we love what we do.” And that love is evident.

Singleton is not a man who cares. He is a man who cares with every fiber of his being. He remembers every student, their personal story, what made them special, what made them a pain in the ass, and where they are today. But that is not all. He has garnered a mutual respect from each student who has walked those same halls that he walked—and beyond.

But, he can’t do it alone. He needs—Strive to Excel needs—the help of the community in order to continue to flourish. He needs your time, your talent, your treasure.

He is in the business of selling hope. And, he sold me.

Writer’s Note: I am especially impressed by Tim Singleton, the S2E program,
and the legacy that he has created. Tim brought me to tears more than once
during our interview. He moved me. And as we wrapped up, he extended his
hand, but I needed to hug him. I found myself overwhelmed by the impact that one man, in two hours, could have on me. Then I thought about a child who
starts the Strive to Excel program in elementary school and how he or she will benefit from eight or nine years of that impact. If only everyone could be so
lucky.

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