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Billy Wagner's Second Chance Learning Center supports at-risk kids.
Photo by Jeff Greenough
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Erik Robinson at the Second Chance Learning Center in Bluefield.
Photo by Eric Kelley.
■ The Visionaries: College best friends Erik Robinson, a specialist in serving at-risk youth, and Billy Wagner, retired Major League Baseball relief pitcher for teams including the Mets, the Braves and the Phillies—founders of Second Chance Learning Center in Bluefield.
■ The “Aha!” Moment: On a plane ride together to a golf tournament, the two long-time friends, who had known each other since they competed on opposing sports teams for their southwest Virginia high schools, found themselves talking about former classmates who had drifted away from school and off the path promised by their potential. Between the two of them, Wagner and Robinson realized they had the expertise, the connections and the resources to help kids like their former classmates, and to prevent the same fate from circumscribing the futures of another generation of students.
■ The Vision: Provide intensive tutoring, mentoring, counseling and other support to students in 6th through 12th grades identified by their schools as being at risk of dropping out or failing to graduate.
You might see the fierce derecho wind storm that wrought havoc on the Second Chance Learning Center’s benefit concert in June of 2012 as a metaphor for what happens to the young people Second Chance serves. An ill wind blows into their lives—family issues, social or behavioral problems, a fragile support system, or maybe just falling too far behind in school and not knowing how, or whom to turn to, to help themselves—and they are in danger of going permanently adrift and off course.
Erik Robinson, executive director of Second Chance in Bluefield, recalls these kids from his own school years as “the ones who disappeared.” Billy Wagner, a seven-time All-Star who retired from Major League Baseball in 2010, says he could have been one of that number were it not for his success in athletics and the help of extended family and friends.
“The dropout rate here in southwest Virginia is very high,” says Robinson. “At Second Chance, we try to start to help them early before they fall so far behind that they can’t graduate.”
Robinson, 41, and Wagner, 42, formed Second Chance in 2005, drawing on Robinson’s expertise working with at-risk youth, and Wagner’s largesse, to devise a program that addresses a wide range of needs for the young people Second Chance serves. The challenges these students face can be complex and even heartbreaking: unstable home lives, mental health problems, parents who themselves never finished high school, families struggling to get by financially. Of the after-school services Second Chance provides, one of the most basic includes a hot meal, because, says Robinson, “It may be the last meal they will have that day.”
Yet last year, the center, with a staff of six, worked with 54 students significantly at risk of failing their grade or dropping out altogether, and 53 of those students either graduated or passed. The success continues beyond graduation, too; Robinson tells of one young man who came to Second Chance as a freshman, reading on a third- or fourth-grade level. Finishing high school was at best a doubtful prospect for the student, but with the center’s support, “By junior year, he was on track to graduate with a special diploma,” says Robinson. “By senior year, he graduated with a full diploma. And when he graduated from Southwest Virginia Community College with a job offer already in hand, he looked at me and said, ‘Erik, I did it.’”
But that derecho? The violent storm swept through in the fundraiser’s second year. Heeding ominous warnings from the weather service, Robinson and his organizers managed to evacuate some 17,000 people from the venue mid-concert. It was a wise decision; when the storm struck, the ferocious winds dragged the stage—anchored by 500-pound cement blocks—more than 20 feet. It was a financial setback for the organization, which had to restage the concert for ticketholders six weeks later. Second Chance was later forced, due to lack of funds, to close a second location it had opened in Tazewell.
Second Chance rallied, however, with support from not only the community but also organizations and individuals across the state. Ticket sales for this year’s benefit concert held June 21 (“Second Chance Rocks the Two Virginias”), which was headlined by the country act Florida Georgia Line with rap collaborator Nelly, surpassed the previous year’s sales. Funds raised from the concert will help further expand the organization’s reach, with plans, for example, to partner with an existing nonprofit in neighboring Bluefield, West Virginia, to work with high school students there.
Robinson says the whole community has gotten behind the fundraising concert, with many sponsors reaching out to them to get involved.
“We do these concerts so that we are able to help more kids, and the more kids who graduate from high school, the more they are ready to contribute back to their community.”
Find All the Visionaries here:
Steve and Jean Case, Early Mountain Vineyards
Brooke Curran, RunningBrooke Fund
Gary LeBlanc, Mercy Chefs
Erik Robinson and Billy Wagner, Second Chance Learning Center