COOKEVILLE – When March ended, Tennessee Tech University alumnus Charles R. White had two reasons to celebrate: One, he had raised more than $3,000 for low-income students in the Knoxville area, and two, he could swap his daily wardrobe of kilts for pants. White wore a kilt every day for 31 days for the second annual Great Kilt-A-Thon to raise those funds.
“It was a great month, but I’m happy to put pants on again,” said White.
White is the director of the Academic Enrichment Upward Bound Program, a federal program funded by the U.S. Department of Education and administered by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. AEUB supports students who are potential first-generation college students and/or who come from a financially disadvantaged background.
The Great Kilt-A-Thon originated last year when White and his staff learned that one of their AEUB alumni – now a student at UTK – needed some financial assistance. She was a graphic design major and her computer died. She couldn’t afford to replace it, so she had to find a way to purchase another computer or change her major and career path. White and his staff needed a way to help.
White is of Scottish heritage and wears a kilt for special occasions, including to church on the first Sunday of every month. He jokingly said to the AUEB staff one day that since he loves to wear a kilt, maybe he could get someone to sponsor him to wear one. He decided to give it a try.
During the Great Kilt-A-Thon, a sponsor commits to donating $1 each day ($31 total) for White to wear a kilt every day in the month of March. White adds a new photo of himself in a kilt to his website (greatkiltahon.com) and Facebook page each day so his sponsors can hold him accountable. Regardless of the weather or what he has planned that day, White honors his commitment and puts on a kilt every morning.
“On day 12 this year, we got eight inches of snow,” he said. “So, I took a picture of myself in my kilt, my sweater and my cup of coffee. One of my friends said I looked like an ad for L. L. Bean Scotland.”
Last year, by word of mouth alone, the Great Kilt-A-Thon raised $1,500, enough to purchase a new computer for the student in need. For the Great Kilt-A-Thon’s second year, White and his staff doubled the goal and raised $3,013. While the Great Kilt-A-Thon occurs each March, the program accepts donations throughout the year.
“These funds are helping pay for gas so students can visit colleges,” said White. “One student is homeless, so we are purchasing clothes and taking care of food insecurity. We are already putting the money to use helping students in our programs with things the grant cannot cover.”
White says he is empathetic to the struggles students in the programs face.
“I was a low-income, first-generation college student, and a scholarship from Tennessee Tech made all the difference for me,” said White.
White received both his bachelor’s degree in secondary education and master’s degree in educational psychology and counselor education from Tech, and he has made a career out of helping students succeed. White worked as a teacher, high school counselor and coach at Donelson Christian Academy, Morristown West, Austin East, Austin Peay State University and several other institutions before accepting the position with AEUB at UTK.
“Working in high schools for 25 years taught me what gaps need to be filled with our students,” said White. “I know the struggles of not having a parent that you can depend on for advice about the college application process. We see homelessness and food insecurity and kids who don’t have clothes. It runs the whole gamut.”
White and his wife Susanne, who graduated from Tech with a degree in accounting, have donated funds to Tech every month since 2006.
“Susanne and I made a decision long ago that we were going to make sure that our money goes where we want it to go and does what we want it to do,” said White. “There are three entities that we donate to every year: Tennessee Tech, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and our church. That’s how much we think of Tennessee Tech. We set up a recurring gift, so we never miss a month.”
White says he is happy to see AEUB students at Tech having the same great experiences that he had when he was a college student, and he has seen that the students who choose Tech do well and stay enrolled.
While White says he loves what he does, he hopes to work himself out of job – that is, ideally, there will be a day where students no longer rely on the services AEUB provides. AEUB is a lot of things to the students it serves, but one thing it’s not, says White, is entitlement.
“This is not an entitlement program,” he said. “This is a program that has a huge return on investment. The kids in my program are in my program because of other people’s choices. They were born into this situation through no fault of their own, and if I can give them a hand up like people helped me, I feel like that’s what I’ve got to do.”