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`This will have an economic impact...long after we are gone,` says educator

Rock River Foundation aims to change the future

charleston — Give a child a fish and he eats today. Teach a child to fish and he feeds himself for a lifetime. That’s the tried-and-true philosophy behind the Rock River Foundation, an educational grant-matching organization created by actor Morgan Freeman.

“Once you get something like this started, it’s a groundswell,” said Freeman, father of four and grandfather of 11, who returned to Charleston in 1991 and established a permanent home in Tallahatchie County. “You’re not just giving money away, you’re involving more people with the same goal: to improve education in Mississippi.”

Established circa 1990, the foundation was set up primarily to provide educational aid to schools in Tallahatchie County. Over the years, it has evolved to assist needy children at all educational levels, from elementary school to law school.

“After I graduated from Greenwood High School and got into the world, I realized what a good education I had,” Freeman said. “When the national education system started to tank, with Mississippi sinking along with it, I knew that we could get it back if we spent more time and effort to spawn it. People complain about the fact that we have a poor education system, but nobody tries to do anything about it. They wait for the government to step in, and it’s not really the government’s problem. It’s the problem of parents of schoolchildren.

“I wanted to share money, but come halfway. Matching grants are the best because you’re not just giving money away. You’re involving more people in it. For example, at Northwest Mississippi Community College (NWCC), I set up a matching donation scholarship program and now they have about a dozen corporations doing that. It’s gone from my little infusions to a couple of millions of dollars in matching grants.”

Since 1997, 26 scholarships have been created though the Matching Gifts Fund at NWCC, an 11-county district that includes eight poor rural counties, said Sybil Canon, director of development for NWCC.

“The grant-matching program is such a wonderful and extraordinary thing,” she said. “We are located in an area of great growth, but also deep poverty. The $5,000 Morgan Freeman gives us every year is used as an incentive to get community and corporate support. We find a $5,000 match to create a $10,000 endowment. These gifts promote first generation college education and this is going to have an economic impact on the northwestern part of Mississippi long after all of us are gone. These endowments will be here forever.”

Otey Sherman, vice president of Union Planters Bank in Charleston and vice president of Rock River Foundation, identifies projects for the foundation to consider undertaking. So far, the biggest benefactor has been the East Tallahatchie School District, he said.

“At first, we put air conditioners in the schools,” Sherman said. “Since then, we’ve done dozens of other projects with the local schools.”

For example, the foundation supports the local elementary school’s summer reading program, where reading teachers are hired to bring at-risk children “up to speed” with their reading skills and scores, Sherman said.

“Reading is so fundamental to any kind of education, so we feel very good about that,” he said. “Through the years, our reading scores have improved, so we know it helps.”

When the local library was expanded, the foundation purchased the adjacent lot on which to build the addition after other funds were secured to cover construction costs. The foundation also helped Delta State University build a satellite campus in Coahoma County.

“Social giving lasts for about a month, but when you give toward education it lasts a lifetime and has benefits long into the future,” Sherman said. “The things we can do for education now come back to benefit the rest of society.”

Perhaps because of Freeman’s love of horses, the foundation has assisted the Mississippi State University equine program and the School of Veterinary Medicine.

The Rock River Foundation has helped two of the University of Mississippi Law School’s funds — an endowment sponsored by the foundation and an endowment named for the late Louis Westerfield, the first African-American dean at Ole Miss who died suddenly of a massive heart attack several years ago at the age of 47. Freeman and Westerfield had been good friends, Sherman said.

“When Morgan makes a donation to Rock River, he calls it his tithe,” Sherman said. “As long as he’s doing well in movies, he can support it.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

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