Bobcat Beanery student worker Jonathn sorts coffee deliveries by floor and room number. The student coffee shop was funded by a grant from the Foundation for Educational Excellence.

Students across Beaufort County are excited about learning, thanks in large part to a local nonprofit organization that awards grants for innovative learning projects.

Teachers often have grand ideas about how to get their students interested in learning, but turning those ideas into reality often requires money that is just not in the budget. The Foundation for Educational Excellence gives Beaufort County School District teachers and schools the opportunity to bring those ideas to life.

“It runs the gamut of ideas and requests to stimulate children to learn,” Foundation board chair Lisa Carroll said.

The grants have made it possible for students at River Ridge Academy to learn to play the ukulele and for Joseph S. Shanklin Elementary School students to create a butterfly garden. They have provided Hilton Head Island High School with a science lab for studying light, color and fiber optics; and Red Cedar Elementary School with a coding robot.

The organization gives out three kinds of grants. Innovative Teacher Grants are awarded each fall to teachers seeking to go above and beyond regular classroom lessons. Student Enrichment Grants are awarded throughout the school year for academic and arts-related events held outside of the school district. Innovative School Resource Grants are awarded each fall for schoolwide projects.

One of the teacher grants this school year went to Bluffton High School for a store run by special education students. The plan changed slightly, and the school opened a coffee shop instead.

However, at the time of publication, the students were setting up the store, which was set to open in the next week or so. Students will sell T-shirts, lanyards and phone chargers during the four lunch periods. 

Special education teacher Elizabeth Reber oversees The Bobcat Beanery, but the students do the work. Everyone has a job, whether pouring coffee, adding cream and sugar, putting lids on coffee cups or delivering drinks to the teachers.

Every Monday morning, about 14 students with varying abilities make and deliver drinks and breakfast treats to teachers throughout the school. Teachers can order hot tea, hot coffee or iced coffee as well as muffins, indicating on an order form how much sugar or cream they would like. They can purchase a $10 card. Each item costs $1. 

The Corner Perk provides the coffee at cost. The special blend is called the Bobcat Brew.

“There’s a lot of differing skills that they have to do,” Reber said. “It works out well for all the different kids. Some of the kids who are higher functioning help the kids who are lower functioning, which is nice, too. It gives them a little bit of leadership opportunities.”

After delivering the coffee on Mondays, the students take inventory and fill out an order form for supplies. They update, alphabetize and file cards that keep track of which teachers ordered something each week.

Reber said the students have gained a lot working at the coffee shop. Some of them are nonverbal by choice, and delivering coffee has helped them open up. Even something as simple as “Here’s your coffee” is an important accomplishment.

“We had a couple of kids who didn’t want anything to do with it in the beginning, and now show up and ask for work,” Reber said. “So it’s been an amazing transformation.”

According to the Foundation for Educational Excellence website, the group has granted more than $270,000 to the school district since 2009, impacting more than 90,000 students. Just this school year, the foundation has distributed almost $30,000 in grants – 19 innovative teacher grants and seven school resource grants. Those grants went to 18 different schools and provided 5,606 individual learning opportunities.

Carroll said in the past, the group has raised about $30,000 a year for the schools. This school year, the group has raised almost $100,000 to help with tutoring, technology and other specific needs for students who have fallen behind due to COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this year, the foundation awarded $61,000 to the five Hilton Head schools, and $25,000 to Robert Smalls International Academy and Shanklin S. Elementary.

The foundation relies on the support of the community through the following groups: the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, Bargain Box of Hilton Head, Friends of Callawassie Island, The Italian-American Club of Hilton Head Island, the Okatie Rotary Club, Women in Philanthropy, and the Moss Creek Charitable Fund. Another major fundraiser for the organization is its annual Jewels and Jeans fundraiser, which is not being held in 2021.

Every year, the foundation gives a $1,000 grant to the Beaufort County Teacher of the Year. This year’s recipient was Okatie Elementary School first-grade teacher Megan DeWeese.

The organization also honors a person or group of people each year with the Peggy May Inspiration Award for dedication, inspiration and support for the county schools. This year’s award went to the entire school system.

“How do we pick just one person when all of the schools are improvising every single day?” Carroll said. “And not just teachers, not just administration but really everyone at the school level, from bus drivers to cafeteria workers to custodians … so we decided to honor all of them.”

Each school received a plaque, a “Congratulations” sign at its entrance and a breakfast buffet.

For more information about the Foundation for Educational Excellence, visit foundationedexcellence.com.

Amy Coyne Bredeson of Bluffton is a freelance writer, a mother of two and a volunteer with the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance.