Chrissie Mooney, a senior at UNC Wilmington, collects stream sediment for her honors project. Courtesy of Chrissie Mooney
Chrissie Mooney, a senior at UNC Wilmington, collects stream sediment for her honors project. Courtesy of Chrissie Mooney

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Once helped by a benefactor, Charlotte man sends students to college

December 30, 2015 06:15 PM

UPDATED December 30, 2015 08:28 PM

When Chrissie Mooney graduates from UNC Wilmington this spring, she’ll complete a link in a chain of good deeds started by a Texas oilman some 30 years ago.

That oilman paid for a young Neal Emmons to attend Baylor University, knowing Emmons’ mother couldn’t afford tuition.

Emmons, now a 49-year-old Charlottean, created Project One Scholarship Fund to support talented, motivated children of single parents. The fund is paying for a dozen graduates of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to attend state universities.

Mooney, a 21-year-old who was once valedictorian at West Mecklenburg High, is on track to claim the first college diploma this spring. She appreciates the $25,000 Project One has contributed, but says she’s especially grateful for the personal support and financial guidance that’s part of the package.

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“They don’t write a check and send it to the school and say, ‘Good luck,’ ” she said.

As Mecklenburg County’s civic leaders confront grim statistics on a dearth of opportunities for Charlotte’s poor, Emmons’ story highlights one person’s power to nudge lives in the right direction.

“The need here is tremendous,” says Emmons, who created the scholarship fund after the recession derailed his career as an investment adviser. The fund is growing – it recently got a $10,000 grant from the Leon Levine Foundation – but he knows it can’t help everyone.

For now it’s working with five CMS high schools that have large numbers of students from single-parent lower-income homes, with scholarship recipients attending six schools in the UNC system.

“I feel like I’m making a difference at an important level,” Emmons said.

A hard-working family

Emmons’ parents divorced when he was about 10. He says his mother worked as a transcriptionist for three medical practices – one during regular working hours, one at night and one on weekends – to provide the basics for him and his older sister.

“She did it on her own – no government support, alimony or child support,” he recalls.

College seemed like it was out of reach. But one of their friends was going to Baylor University, a Christian school in Waco, Texas. The friend’s grandfather had grown wealthy in oil and offered to pay for the two Emmons kids to go, too.

Emmons said he had little contact with his benefactor, who has been dead for more than a decade. But the donor’s son later explained that his dad had simply seen a hard-working family and wanted to help.

The trajectory of my own life was forever changed through three distinct events: graduating from college; completing a personal financial management course where I discovered how important it is to live within your means; and coming to one important realization: that to have personal fulfillment, I needed to use my own gifts and talents to help others.

Neal Emmons on Project One web site

The lawyer who handled the money became a mentor to Emmons. And that formed part of his resolve to pay forward the help he’d gotten: Providing not only money but personal guidance that helps young adults complete college.

Emmons met his wife, Katie, at Baylor. After graduation he earned good money in finance, but they spent a lot, too. A class in financial literacy helped the couple learn to bring their spending in line with their income – and created another pillar of Emmons’ plan.

Too often, he says, young adults graduate in debt and dig themselves deeper by running up credit card bills. To build better lives, he concluded, they need the same kind of financial guidance he and his wife got.

Bad timing for move

Neal and Katie Emmons, who have two daughters, lived in Atlanta and Dallas before deciding Charlotte would offer a better lifestyle. He figured he could easily find a comparable job in a financial hub like this.

They moved in July 2008. The timing was not great.

As Charlotte’s financial sector was roiled by layoffs and losses, Emmons decided to try a new path. He knew almost no one here, but he asked around to find people who could advise him: Would his scholarship vision work? Was anyone here already doing the same thing?

His pastor suggested some contacts. Emmons found a lawyer and accountant who could help him start a nonprofit group. The Foundation for the Carolinas put him in touch with people who might make good board members. One of them was Eduardo Haynes, a University of Phoenix faculty member with a history in financial services. Haynes now chairs the Project One board.

The scholarship program started coming together in 2009. Emmons is executive director, though he draws no salary. When he’s not working for Project One, he helps with his wife’s interior design business.

The next generation

Project One works with counselors at West Meck, West Charlotte, Garinger, Olympic and Phillip O. Berry high schools to recruit applicants. However, the scholarships are available to any Mecklenburg County senior who meets the academic and leadership requirements and who is raised by a single parent earning no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That comes to just under $37,000 a year for a parent with two children.

The scholarships offer $25,000 for a four-year education at a state-sponsored North Carolina school, designed to combine with financial aid and let the student graduate debt free.

As Mooney demonstrates, “low income” and “single parent” don’t necessarily translate to educationally deprived. Her mother, Lisa Mooney, is a freelance writer with a master’s degree in English. Christie Mooney was not only at the top of her class, she was vice president of the student body and an athlete.

Science classes at West Meck had sparked her fascination with the ocean. Her guidance counselor, Grady Cathey, told her about the new scholarship and suggested it would be perfect to help her get to UNC Wilmington to study oceanography.

Mooney was one of the first two chosen. She’s on track to graduate after four years, with a college GPA of just over 3.6, while the other recipient is expected to finish in December 2016.

Mooney beams when she talks about her studies, though she laughs at the notion that she has chosen a glamorous field. She’s not researching “charismatic megafauna” like dolphins and sea turtles, she says.

“I work with sediment,” she clarifies. Her senior honors project involves studying isotope signatures in tidal streambeds to chart past sea levels and analyze the impact of erosion.

After graduation Mooney hopes to enter grad school at UNCW.

A cycle of giving

Project One will start taking applications from the Class of 2016 in mid-January.

While Emmons could reasonably consider his karmic debt repaid, he says he has no interest in changing course.

In fact, having the chance to pursue his dream of helping others led Emmons to the final element of Project One. In addition to the money, mentoring and financial education, all scholars take a course on identifying talents that will let them contribute to their communities.

“Ultimately,” Emmons says, “I envision the program becoming a self-perpetuating cycle of giving.”

In other words, Mooney’s graduation may be just the next link in a chain extending far into the future.

Project One scholarships

▪ Applicants must be high school seniors who live in Mecklenburg County, plan to attend a state school, have a GPA of 2.5 or higher and are raised by a single parent earning no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

▪ Applications for the Class of 2016 will open in mid-January.

▪ Adults can volunteer as mentors, applicant interviewers or leaders of workshops for recipients.

▪ Details: http://projectonescholarshipfund.org, (704) 241-4994 or neal@projectonescholarshipfund.org.