Project for West Charlotte rising freshmen gathers $1,450 in real donations

The teens who had just finished trying to persuade a panel of donors to give to Loaves & Fishes food pantry were breathing like they’d just sprinted up a flight of stairs.

“I need to sit down,” one said. “My legs are shaking.”

The “sharks” reviewing pitches from 30 rising freshmen at West Charlotte High on Thursday were gentler than the investors who grill entrepreneurs on ABC’s “ Shark Tank.” But the stress of standing in front of strangers, with real money riding on the quality of their work, is an important part of the program to boost literacy.

“These are life skills. This is good practice for them,” said Kimberly Shumaker, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools literacy specialist who sat on one of the panels.

The charity pitches concluded the literacy section of West Charlotte’s six-week freshman academy, designed to help new high school students prepare for success. Students researched local nonprofits such as the Humane Society of Charlotte, A Child’s Place, The Relatives and Habitat for Humanity, then went before groups of CMS employees and community volunteers to make a case for donations.

Julian Tolbert, 14, donned a black suit with a white tie and pocket square for his pitch. He and three other young men shook hands and introduced themselves before telling their panel vivid tales of cruelty to animals.

“Have you ever seen the show ‘Animal Hoarders’?” he asked. The Humane Society helps rescue pets from homes where owners take in more animals than they can care for, he said.

Shumaker asked the group members why they chose that cause.

“Any living thing that is brutalized, it hurts everything,” said Wrashawn Griffin, 14.

It was the third pitch for volunteer David Friday, who teaches at Central Piedmont Community College, Johnson C. Smith University and Strayer University. He was impressed by them all: “I see three donations for me.”

Courtney Hall and Jessica Bennett, both 14, brought a banner, balloons, backpacks and T-shirts to make their case for 24 Hours of Booty, a bike ride to raise money for cancer research and patient support.

They outlined the history of the program and talked about the importance of providing support to patients and families. They told about their own grandfathers’ deaths from cancer. Jessica even got a laugh when she explained the origin of the name: “It came from boys riding bikes just to look at girls’ butts.”

By day’s end the volunteers had pledged a total of $1,450, with the possibility of a $400 employer match.

The students had a leg up on their freshman year, which starts Aug. 25, and skills that will serve them in job interviews, classes and community service.

Roger Hull, a retired electrical engineer who volunteered, said he was glad he came. “It’s important to be here so kids know there’s somebody listening,” he said.