20 for 20: Charlie Buchanan

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Tell us about yourself: why did you come to Albany, what did you do for work, and what do you like about this area?

In  the 1970’s, I was the head of a family business in Wisconsin that was bought by Albany Felt Company (which later became Albany International). After the merger, I was offered a job at Albany International, and we moved here in 1975. My wife was thrilled because she had always dreamed of going to law school (which she did), and I was excited about the many colleges and universities in Albany, as well as its proximity to the Catskills and the Adirondacks, as I enjoyed hiking.

One thing that surprised me was the parochialism of the area--people in Albany tended to stay in Albany--traveling to Troy and Schenectady always seemed like such an undertaking. In those days, Saratoga Springs was barely on the map! I’m glad to see that much of that has changed over the years.

Did you have a mentor as you started your career? If so, who was it, and what did they do for you?

My father was really my mentor. He went to Dartmouth and was a very successful and influential businessman. He was very focused on philanthropy, and I learned a lot from him about business and leadership.

You’re the only living founder of Sponsor-A-Scholar. What did you think when you first heard about the idea to start the program from Bill Barnet?

I knew Bill Barnet from Dartmouth Alumni gatherings. He was a very big presence in the area and he was twenty years my senior. He graduated from Albany High School in the 1930’s, and was the first Jewish member of many organizations and boards in the area. Bill ran a family business that focused on textile recycling, so there was a connection between his company and Albany Felt Company, though by the time I knew him, the operations of his company had moved to South Carolina.

In the late 1990’s, Bill started talking to me about a program in Philadelphia called  Sponsor-A-Scholar , which was was formed as a response to race riots in Philadelphia in the 1980’s. Community leaders wanted to give young people an avenue for success, and they wanted to make a pathway for young people to get an education and then come back to the area to work and live. The Philadelphia program began in early the 1990’s. Bill’s daughter, Carol, was instrumental in its founding, and she suggested that it might be replicated in Albany.

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So we contacted the Community Foundation about the possibility of starting a program in Albany. The Community Foundation was just starting out at the time, and had a small staff. Still, they took a chance on us and funded a feasibility study to look into the high school graduation rates in Albany. At that time, there was less transparency about what overall percentage of students were graduating and what number were dropping out. The study that we commissioned highlighted the need for a focus on college preparation to improve both high school and college completion rates.

Armed with this information, we approached several local banks about starting a program based on the model developed in Philadelphia, but they wanted it to be in Albany, Schenectady and Troy. We decided to begin the program in Albany and Troy in 1997, and then took steps in 1999 to add Schenectady with the help of Geraldine Golub. As we were putting plans in place, we knew we needed an Executive Director, and I had met Deborah White earlier, when she was running a mentoring program through Governor Mario Cuomo’s office. Once the Governor left office, the program ended, and Ms. White needed a job--we needed an Executive Director, and the rest is history.

It’s been 20 years since you started the program. What are you most proud of?

While I’m so proud of our wonderful Scholars and alumni, I am also proud of the fact that, in 20 years, we have had three excellent Executive Directors, a committed staff and dedicated board. The stability of the leadership speaks volumes about our organization. I see many organizations with high turnover in key positions, and I think it brings a sense of uncertainty from community members and staff. I am also happy to see so many wonderful new board members joining us and continuing the mission.

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What excites you about recent improvements to the program over the past couple of years?

The added emphasis on keeping in touch with college Scholars has been so important, and I think it will lead to higher college completion rates over time. The partnership with Hudson Valley Community College has been wonderful to watch, and I am excited to see other connections like it in the future.

I am also inspired by the many improvements to the mentoring program. Our mentor coordinators like the wonderful Onnolee Smith are to be commended for their fantastic work with the mentors who are so instrumental to our Scholars’ perseverance.

What is the most important piece of advice you would share with our Scholars?

Finish college. In this day and age, it’s so important to have a college degree and Sponsor-A-Scholar is here to help you do it. I would like to see even more Scholars complete college and come back and find leadership positions in our area. Every time I meet an alum of the program who has moved back to the area and is volunteering with us, I feel so proud of them. We now have two alumni on our board, and nearly a dozen who volunteer in other ways.

How does supporting Sponsor-A-Scholar make you feel?

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I feel good! This model works. We have built a pipeline for young people to overcome the odds and succeed in college and life. Many of our alumni are now leaders here and elsewhere. They have jobs and are giving back to their communities. The dream is now a reality.

What would you say to someone who is considering making their first gift to Sponsor-A-Scholar?

Do it! If you are a sponsor, that’s wonderful! I urge to you meet and congratulate your Scholar on his or her achievements and let them know you’re rooting for them. And, to all who give, on behalf of the board, I thank you!

What is your vision for Sponsor-A-Scholar in five years?
I am so pleased by the wonderful work we've done over the past twenty years, and I know we can build upon those successes to serve more students and make a greater impact in the future with more students earning degrees and developing into leaders in their communities.

Thank you Charlie for twenty years of constant dedication, advice and support!