Aspen students determined to help Sunflower County, Mississippi

Aspen Times

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen School District Outdoor Education program has been changing the way students see the world for years. In April, the program was the platform that allowed a handful of Aspen High School students to visit Tennessee and Mississippi during the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement.

As part of the trip, the Aspen group visited the Sunflower County Freedom Project in Indianola, Mississippi. The project’s mission is to help kids from that area academically and give students direction that will help them reach the next stage of education.

Sunflower County has some of the worst health statistics and economic disparity and is still one of the most racially segregated areas in the U.S.
Aspen seniors Ryan Scheidt and Kelcie Gerson and junior Ross Pingatore were part of the group that visited Sunflower County. The students were shocked to find such harsh living conditions in their own country.

“I’ve seen plenty of poverty on the news,” Pingatore said. “But to see it with my own eyes really struck me. I didn’t expect to see Third World conditions in our country.”

Even more shocking, though, was the fact that 100 percent of the students who go through the Sunflower County Freedom Project go on to attend college. After attending college, most of those same graduates have returned to Sunflower County to help the next generation of Sunflower County Freedom Project students.

“The students we met were basically our peers,” Gerson said. “Listening to them tell their stories of hardship made it very real to us. They’re really no different than us, except they were born into unfortunate circumstances and don’t have the same opportunities we have. That makes the success of the Freedom Project even more striking. It just shows how much these students want to learn and excel when given the opportunity.”

According to Scheidt, opportunities are just what the Sunflower County kids need.
“They didn’t treat us like outsiders,” Scheidt said. “They treated us like friends, and that made it very easy for me to relate to them. I was really moved by their kindness and generosity. If given the opportunity, those students will do great things.”

The Southern students made such an impact on the Aspen trio that they decided they wanted to do more to make a difference for their new friends.
Scheidt and Gerson started the Aspen High School Business Club as sophomores and began investing money that was donated to them. The one contingency was that they had to give any money they made to a charity within the U.S. After visiting the Sunflower County Freedom Project, both agreed that the project was where they wanted to make their major donation of $10,000.

“That’s roughly 10 percent of the project’s annual operating budget,” Gerson said. “Ryan and I are both 100 percent sure we’re donating to the right organization. When we told the Sunflower people what we wanted to do, they were speechless.”

Pingatore also was struck by the 100 percent college attendance by students who went through the Sunflower County Freedom Project, but he wondered how he could help the rest of the Sunflower County community.

His idea is to raise money to help the county build a library for all residents to access, not just the students in the Sunflower County Freedom Project. Pingatore also plans on returning to Mississippi this fall to continue his relationship with the people there.

On Friday, Reilly Morse, the president of the Mississippi Center for Justice, visited Aspen High School and met with several teachers, staff and the three students. The Center for Justice is an organization that helps the needy with legal support and ensures fair settlements to those who can’t afford proper legal representation.

When Morse met the Aspen students in April, he was moved by their care and compassion.

“Watching those young people reach out to help a community so far removed from theirs gives me hope concerning our future,” Morse said. “Motivation can be a challenge at times, and the visit from the Aspen students was extremely motivating. Those kids didn’t have to make the trip; they could have stayed home and skied, but instead they encountered some huge issues and want to make a difference.

“I could see the clear impact they made as they went from being students to philanthropic ambassadors. It was a powerful moment, and I’m glad I have the opportunity to come here and thank them myself.”

The trip was the idea of Aspen resident Leonard Lansburgh, who has visited Mississippi twice through his relationship with the Mississippi Center for Justice.

“I wanted our local kids to feel some of the same impacts I experienced,” Lansburgh said. “I never imagined the Aspen kids would get so much out of this trip. They’re the new advocates now.”