Nestled in the hills of Manchester, Kentucky, sits an A-frame house with a gorgeous mountain view from the front window. But the most charming thing is what’s inside. This is no ordinary home: within its walls, you’ll find classrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, and a dedicated team of staff on a mission to serve the youth of Clay County.

In 2020, the nation was reeling from the aftermath of the tragic death of George Floyd. As a response, Rhonda Phillips founded Thompson Scholars, a place where underserved local youth could feel safe and supported as they reach their full potential. Phillips’ experience as a single parent raising a racially diverse family in rural Eastern Kentucky led to her commitment to social justice and equity.

Thompson Scholars, named in honor of Clay County native and President of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, Dr. Aaron Thompson, became an official nonprofit organization in November 2020 and began in-person services in July 2021. Thompson Scholars is one of the first and only grassroots organizations in Appalachian Kentucky that serves children from birth through college. Its programs include college readiness, leadership development, literacy, STEM, the arts, kindergarten readiness, family engagement, and physical and emotional wellbeing.

The organization has expanded quickly, with contributions from Save the Children, Berea College, Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, Partners for Rural Impact and more. Thompson Scholars serves children from cradle to career, and in 2023, saw its first seniors graduate high school and enroll in college: a 100% postsecondary enrollment rate for the program.

Phillips said the key to Thompson Scholars’ success has been working from a central value of equity. Well over half of youth participants and staff identify as Black or biracial.

“Students flourish when they see teachers who look like them and who understand their experiences,” Phillips said. “Staff who reflect and relate help to create that sense of belonging in the after-school program.”

When it comes to the growth of Thompson Scholars’ team, Phillips says it happened naturally: as more staff and volunteers came on board, word spread, and others wanted to get involved.

“Excellence feeds excellence,” Phillips said, referring to her team. “I can’t say enough about the amazing team that has gravitated toward this important work!”

Staff and volunteers bring a combined total of more than 140 years of classroom experience. Thompson Scholars has also added specialized positions to its staff, including an instructional coach, an early childhood specialist, a speech-language pathologist, and a school counselor.

Pictured left to right: Meau Jones, Founder & Director Rhonda Phillips, Cookie Henson and Dr. Aaron Thompson

The work of this dedicated team has not gone unnoticed. In 2022, Thompson Scholars received the Mary Ann Miller THRIVE Award, Groundswell Action Award, and Churchill Downs “Race to Inspire” Award. The organization will be celebrating another successful year with the release of its next annual report.

In coming months, AppC2C will be publishing a monthly feature about Thompson Scholars, including going into more detail about new initiatives, programs, students, and staff. You can also follow Thompson Scholars on Facebook. More information on how to get involved and how to donate to Thompson Scholars will be forthcoming.

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