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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

Richard Leigh Songwriters Festival is at VHCC

Pictured from left to right: Tony Arata, Mark Sanders, Richard Leigh, Dennis Morgan and Roger Cook return for this year's songwriters festival.
Pictured from left to right: Tony Arata, Mark Sanders, Richard Leigh, Dennis Morgan and Roger Cook return for this year's songwriters festival.

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | April 30, 2014

Several songwriters will convene in Abingdon, Va., to use their art to support a cause especially meaningful to one of them Richard Leigh.

The cause is Great Expectations, which provides services to foster children to help them be successful. Six of Nashville's leading songwriters will gather on the campus of Virginia Highlands Community College, joined by up-and-coming talents from the region, for a daylong celebration of song.

"Their names may not be familiar, but their chart-topping hits, which have been recorded by country music greats like Garth Brooks, Trace Adkins, Reba McEntire, George Strait, Faith Hill and Randy Travis will certainly have you tapping your toe and singing along," says David Matlock, vice president of institutional advancement. "Between them, they have sold more than a billion records."

The festival honors the work of Richard Leigh, a 1973 graduate of Virginia Highlands Community College who earned a Grammy Award for "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," a No. 1 hit recorded by country superstar Crystal Gayle. Over the course of his songwriting career, Leigh has been honored with numerous awards from the Country Music Association, the Academy of Country Music and the Nashville Songwriters Association International, and has written dozens of hits for country music's elite. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1994 and was named to the Outstanding Alumni Hall of Fame by the American Association of Community Colleges in 2011.

"Richard enthusiastically agreed to return to the VHCC campus, rally his friends from the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and lend his name to the upcoming festival that celebrates the art of songwriting and benefit VHCC's Great Expectations Program for foster care students," says Matlock. "Because Richard lost his parents at a young age and was later adopted, the cause is one close to his heart."

Leigh has gathered five of his Grammy-award-winning friends to perform at the festival. They include Tony Arata, Roger Cook, Dennis Morgan, Mark Sanders and Pat Alger. James King and William Beckett join the group.

Local talent who will perform throughout the weekend include Annabelle's Curse, KT Vandyke, Wise Old River, Clifton's Ford, David and Ann Ledgerwood, Gill Braswell, Bobby Plough, Mary Munsey and others.

These talents are raising money for Great Expectations whose needs are particuarly pressing at present, according to Matlock.

"Virginia has the highest percentage of teens aging out of the foster care system without a permanent home ranking last of all the states in the U.S.," he says. "These youth are among the most vulnerable in the commonwealth, lacking support and resources as they come of age. Current research shows that despite their survival skills, the typical youth who age out of the foster care system have no social or family support and are unsuccessful at employment and educational pursuits."

The statistics are chilling. Virginia has more than 6,500 children in foster care, more than half of them are teenagers. More than 54 percent of those who have recently aged out of the system are homeless or in an unstable house. More than 25 percent will be incarcerated in the first two years after leaving the system. Only 20 percent of those 19 or older will take advantage of educational programs. Only 58 percent will earn a high school degree by age 19, compared with 87 percent nationally. Less than two percent will earn a college degree, compared with 28 percent of the general population.

VHCC launched its Great Expectations Education Program for Foster Youth in 2008 with the support of a community member who recognized the challenges facing foster youth. Great Expectations is a statewide program of Virginia's community colleges to help foster youth complete high school, gain access to the community college and transition successfully to living independently. The program continues to grow and continues to make a difference in the lives of Virginia's foster youth.

"Since its launch, Great Expectations has served more than 160 students, helping them obtain associate degrees and workforce certifications, transfer to four-year colleges and universities and position themselves for employment and life success," Matlock says. "Our goal is to make Great Expectations available and easily accessible for all foster youth across Southwest Virginia."

The program provides personalized counseling, career exploration and coaching, helps in applying for college admission and financial aid, provides student and adult mentors, offers life skills training (including managing finances), individualized training, emergency funds and access to an Internet-based resource center.

The project also focuses on ways to help at-risk youth overcome well-documented barriers to their life success, including housing, transportation and childcare.

In addition to helping foster care youth complete high school and go to college, the project helps to meet students' basic needs and increase the number of foster youth who are successfully living independently, and to increase the number of foster youth who gain employment in desirable jobs.

"One of the project's "lessons learned' is the need to reach out to foster youth in high school to let them know college is possible and will be affordable," Matlock says, "something many of these students would never think to consider.

"By continuing to expand the program and add to the services it provides, our youth will perhaps for the first time in their lives have a team of trusted, reliable people to support and guide them toward success in school, employment and life. After all, each student that we rescue is a life forever changed," Matlock says.

Leigh and his friends will be working diligently May 23 and May 24 to help VHCC reach out to foster youth.

- Richard Leigh happy to support alma mater

Topics: Music