The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Sunday January 29th

Student Helps Sunflower Bloom

Stunned and confused, Myers asked his father to explain the disturbing shot of history. That was his first lesson in racial injustice, a lesson he would teach in the future.

Fifteen years later, the UNC graduate student founded the Sunflower County Freedom project -- a six-week summer program that teaches underprivileged black children in Mississippi and takes over where poor public schools have left off.

"We want to let kids see the opportunities the world has to offer and give them the skills and characteristics they need to take advantage of them," Myers said.

Myers, 27, didn't always dream of a career fighting racial injustices in a classroom. As an undergraduate at Duke University, he studied public policy.

While there, he heard of a program called Teach for America in which graduates without teaching degrees could train and teach in public schools with teacher shortages.

"It captured the kind of spirit I believe in," Myers said. "This country is great because of its potential, but we need to help it live up to its potential. Teach for America was my way of doing this."

So Myers ditched ideas of law school and politics and headed to the deep South.

He took his first teaching job in Sunflower, Miss., at a poor, primarily black elementary school.

"I was the captain of the ship," Myers said.

"It was an awesome sense of power, but also an awesome sense of responsibility."

After three years at East Sunflower Elementary school, Myers uprooted himself from the delta and spent a year overseas.

But the South and the needs of the kids in the small town brought him back, he said.

"There is nothing to do during those long, hot summer days in Sunflower, and there was no educational opportunities for those kids," Myers said.

"Kids were getting pregnant or turning to drugs and we wanted to do something different to break this cycle."

Together, with some other Teach for America teachers, parents and community members from Sunflower, Myers crafted an intense, six-week summer school program modeled after the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights era.

In 1998, they began funding the project with grants and private donations.

Myers saw the school as opportunity for the kids to attack the odds already piled high against them.

Using drama, art and literature, Myers and other volunteers teach the children about their heritage, from slavery to Martin Luther King Jr.

The program concludes with a weeklong trip to Civil War sites all over the South.

This year, Myers and returning students are taking their production of the story of Emmett Till on the road to cities, including the Big Apple.

"People call these methods innovative, but to me it's getting back to the roots of teaching," he said.

"You get a creative, enthusiastic teacher in the classroom and things happen."

Steve Estes, 28, also a UNC graduate student who has taught in the program both summers, said Myers' enthusiasm is helpful to colleagues as well as students.

"He is a unique and amazing individual," Estes said. "His sincerity and dedication are an inspiration to anyone who wants to make a difference in the South and in education."

Myers said he has plans for extending the school to a year-round program, but for now he is just looking forward to this summer and the chance to plant more seeds of hope with the kids of Sunflower, Miss.

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