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Football Classic Returns To Raise Funds For Dropout Program

Sherman Lea gives the details of the WVEC.

by Gene Marrano

It almost didn’t happen when organizers had some difficulty lining up teams, but nonetheless the 12th annual Western Virginia Education Classic (WVEC) will return to the Roanoke Valley on October 29. The football game, which features two historically black colleges, raises money for TAP’s Project Recovery program, which the agency describes as a partnership with Roanoke City Schools.

Project Recovery is an important program said Lea, as Roanoke looks for higher graduation rates and a better-educated work force. “You’ve got to get those students on the fringe,” he noted.

Since its beginnings in 1995, Total Action Against Poverty, better known as TAP, has helped more than 800 dropouts return to high school, after tracking them down. A full time education specialist was hired by TAP in 2000, augmenting the need for funds raised by the WVEC game, which was the brainchild of Roanoke City Councilman Sherman Lea Sr., a former TAP board member and school board member.

Virginia Union – where Lea played football – squared off against Livingstone College (NC) in the inaugural game on September 16, 2000. Victory Stadium, Liberty University, Ferrum College and Salem’s football stadium hosted the game before it moved to the new football field at William Fleming High School last year.

This year Virginia University at Lynchburg – a former seminary college playing its first collegiate athletic schedule in over 50 years – will face off against Lincoln University of Pennsylvania in a 2 p.m. game. Tailgating begins at 8 a.m. and for many is the highlight of the day.

“That’s the big thing about it,” said Lea as he spoke at a press conference, held on the William Fleming High School football turf, to announce the game. “It’s good for the [local] community,” added Lea, who was pleased to introduce his former coach at Virginia Union to the podium. Willard Bailey is now the athletic director for the fledgling Virginia University program.

The school is jumping right into the frying pan – playing North Carolina A&T next week. That school will play Appalachian State, a 1-AA power (FCS) – which faces off against Virginia Tech on September 3. “I don’t know what type of team we’re going to have but I know we’re playing for a great purpose. We cherish the opportunity,” said Bailey, who has coached at several schools that have appeared in the WVEC.

TAP chairman Lee Wilhelm said this year’s Western Virginia Education Classic “almost didn’t happen,” for an agency, he added, that has had “a tough year,” with budget cuts and long term staff illnesses.

“They know how valuable [Project Recovery] is,” said Wilhelm of Lea and School Superintendent Rita Bishop, who was also on hand. “Project Recovery might have had to take a year off,” added Wilhelm, if no football game had come to pass this fall. With graduation rates up sharply in the city over the past few years, “it is even more important that Project Recovery moves forward.”

TAP chief executive officer Ted Edlich praised Lea, who may run for mayor next year, as “the main driving force” behind Project Recovery. “Those [returned students] represent a cycle of success,” said Edlich. Lea also stressed how economically disadvantaged high school dropouts are in today’s world.

Bishop, who delivers a list of dropouts to TAP every year for Project Recovery to work on, said it was “absolutely unthinkable,” that the WVEC might be canceled when teams could not be lined up. She agreed with Lea’s remark about dropouts: “if we don’t have an educated population we are doomed economically.”

Football and tailgating comes first on October 29, as Bishop was quick to point out. “The game itself is a lot of fun. Come support our kids, but come have a good time.”

Ticket information will be made available soon; contact TAP at 767-6221 for more details.

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