TUPELO • For 10 years, the Toyota Wellspring Education Fund has worked to expose, educate and connect students to careers and a better future in Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties.

“This has created so many opportunities for young people in our region,” said Pontotoc County Chancery Clerk Ricky Ferguson, who serves on the fund’s board.

On Wednesday, business leaders, community advocates, elected officials and educators gathered with Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi and CREATE Foundation to celebrate the fund’s 10th anniversary at the Imagine the Possibilities Career Expo.

“Thank you (Toyota) for the hope you bring to the children of Mississippi,” said Greg Pirkle, who represents Lee County on the Wellspring Education Fund board.

When Toyota committed to Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties, it announced a $50 million gift, to be paid over 10 years, to benefit the eight school districts in those counties. The funds created the Toyota Wellspring Education Fund, managed by the CREATE Foundation, Instead of spending all the funds as they came in, most of the funds went toward establishing an endowment that funds efforts to prepare students for careers into the future.

“In the last 10 years, many educational programs have been enhanced, and launched, by the Toyota Wellspring Education Fund,” said Emily Lauder, vice president for administration at Toyota Mississippi. “The momentum we are seeing with programs like Imagine the Possibilities Career Expo led by Albine Bennett, and the career coaches led by Dr. Kristy Luce, are just examples of the successful outcomes we are seeing. We are grateful to Mike Clayborne and his team at CREATE for their diligent commitment to the Toyota Wellspring Education Fund and look forward to our continued partnership.”

The fund’s efforts have evolved over the years in an effort to have the most career aware high school graduates in the world. Initially plans called to build the Wellspring School for Professional Futures, but that concept didn’t prove feasible, said Charles Garrett, a retired school superintendent who oversaw the fund for CREATE when it began.

“I hope the legacy will be helping more and more students find careers that maximize their talents and earning potentials,” Garrett said. ”At present we have many people in our area that are underemployed. If the fund raises the economic status for the people of Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties, it will have made a major impact on the people of our area.”

Ten years ago, Union County deputy superintendent Windy Faulkner said she had high hopes that Wellspring would have a positive impact.

“It has exceeded my expectations by providing our schools with resources that not only benefit our students, but our teachers and administrators as well,” Faulkner said.

The Wellspring Fund partnerships among school districts and business leaders have endured by focusing on enhancing the scholastics and connecting the classroom to careers.

“It’s a stop gap measure to do things that districts couldn’t do without it,” said David Rumbarger, president and chief executive officer of the Community Development Foundation, which spearheaded the efforts to create the PUL Alliance that brought Toyota to Blue Springs.

Suzy Bowman, who serves as a career coach at New Albany High School, said she sees the Wellspring initiatives expanding students’ horizons and their visions for the future.

“They don’t know what’s out there,” Bowman said. “They don’t know what’s right in their backyard.”

Over the past year and a half, she and other career coaches have watched the career expo and the YouScience program lead students to careers they hadn’t considered. The career coaches have been able to connect students to internships and job shadowing opportunities, she said.

“Seniors have changed their (academic focus) entirely because of their experience in internships,” Bowman said.

Kristy Luse, the current CREATE vice president oversee the Wellspring Fund, sees the initiative has stretched beyond partnerships between schools and Toyota.

“It’s all about the community,” Luse said, as more than 130 businesses shared their stories at the career expo.

The more students see career possibilities that intersect with their interests and aptitudes, the more they are able to connect what they learn in the classroom to the paths they want to follow.

“Connecting education and careers is a critical piece,” said Mike Clayborne, president of the CREATE Foundation.

The work and partnerships will continue to evolve.

“This is just a milestone,” Rumbarger said. “We’re looking for great things ahead.”