Jim Ayers isn’t a farmer, but the seeds he started sowing six years ago in the rural Tennessee county he calls home have yielded a crop of remarkable growth.
Through his Ayers Foundation Scholars Program, this self-made millionaire plants the seeds of hope and opportunity for every student who attends school in Decatur County. Started in 1999, the program makes higher education more accessible to qualifying graduating seniors by granting them as much as $4,000 annually for up to four years. Recipients can use scholarships at any university, community college or state-run vocational-technical institute in the United States.
The program also provides funding for counseling for 7th- and 8th-grade students, for seniors to take advanced placement courses for college, and for teachers to return to school to obtain their master’s degrees.
“Education changes lives and communities,” says Ayers, 63, who speaks from personal experience. He was born and raised in a modest home that still stands in Parsons, Tenn. (pop. 2,452), where his father owned a sawmill. Both of his parents attended college, but did not graduate.
“My father never let me work in the mill; that’s about the hardest and most dangerous work there is,” Ayers says. “From the time I was about 6 years old, there was never any question but that I would go to college.”
After graduating from Parsons High School in 1961, he went to Memphis State College to study dentistry. He ended up instead with an accounting degree—and a wife, child and $8,000 of school-loan debt. Anxious to pay the money back as soon as possible, he took a job as a salesman for Ortho Pharmaceuticals, based in Birmingham, Ala. His father’s death in 1968 brought him back home to Parsons, where he took a comptroller position for a company that operated nursing homes. It was in that industry that he made his fortune, one made larger still by his entry several years ago into the banking business.
“I have been very lucky,” Ayers says, sitting in his conservatively furnished office at First Bank on Main Street in Parsons. “There seemed no benefit to me to keep adding up the zeros on my bank statement. I’ve been to a lot of funerals and I’ve never seen anyone take it with them.”
Instead, he decided to invest in the futures of the young people in his community. But the money, handled and disbursed through the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, is just part of the equation. Of equal—or perhaps even greater—value are the program’s administrative and counseling services, which assist students in essay writing, attending a financial aid workshop, completing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and applying for other scholarships.
The success of the program is evident in the numbers. Before the creation of the Ayers Foundation, fewer than 30 percent of Decatur County’s high school graduates pursued post-secondary education. Of the 112 students who graduated in 2005 from Riverside and Scotts Hill high schools in Scotts Hill, Tenn. (pop. 894), 104 (nearly 93 percent) were planning on continuing their education. In six years, the program has awarded more than $2.5 million in scholarships and helped students obtain nearly $3.7 million in other funding.
Beyond the dollar signs, students who have benefited reveal the true value of the program. Jason Rushing was a senior at Riverside High School in 1999 when the program was first announced. He signed on immediately, and went on to earn an education degree from the University of Tennessee-Martin in 2004. That fall, he entered Union University in nearby Jackson, Tenn. (pop. 59,643), to pursue a master’s in business administration degree.
“You almost run out of words to describe it,” says Rushing, now 25, who will obtain his MBA in 2006 and likely pursue a career in the fund-raising field. “It just shows you every day what a difference one person can make to an entire community.”