Unum is among Chattanooga's largest employers, and one of the most successful disability insurers in the world.
Quotes: "This is our future work force, so we feel its important for us to develop that workforce." - Cathy Barrett, community relations manager.
Fun fact: Unum funds projects that include everything from recycling bins and garden supplies to civil war cameras and historical biographies
Books about shiny vampire love and post-apocalyptic teenage gladiators are all the rage right now for the under-18 crowd, but Jessica Holloway wants more than that for her students.
A teacher at Hixson Middle School, the 29-year-old Holloway sees reading as a portal into another world; a time-traveling device to visit other eras and cultures without leaving the living room. She wants her students to see it that way, too.
"There's nothing like sitting down with a book," she said. "It's like having an experience and going somewhere without leaving your house."
The students themselves sometimes prefer torrid tales about lusty teenagers and magic wands. But by working with parents to establish reading times at home, Holloway pushes the students to learn a little something about history and science, and along the way they create the mental tools they need to carry them through to a successful life.
Chattanooga-based Unum, a disability insurer which spends almost 40 percent of its $1.2 million community budget on education, gives Holloway and other local teachers the tools they need.
In the last four years, Unum has transferred about $200,000 in micro-grants to 215 Hamilton County teachers for supplies that they can't get from the school system. Sometimes the money goes toward recycling bins, other times it goes for lab equipment, said Cathy Barrett, Unum's community relations manager.
"At first we were stunned at some of the things teachers were requesting. We assumed that a chemistry lab had the supplies to do experiments with, but that wasn't always the case," she said.
The company also supports the Principal Leadership Academy to the tune of $300,000, "because we feel that having leadership is key to having strong schools," Barrett said.
The company has also thrown its support behind IT training for students, through curriculum help, job shadowing and mentoring, she said.
"Technology and IT are huge for us as an insurance company, and we have a lot of skilled folks in those areas who can help," she said.
For Holloway's class, a $1,000 grant from Unum bought about 100 non-fiction books for her aspiring readers.
Unum sees the support, in part, as a training tool for its future work force, said Kathy Barrett, Unum's community relations manger.
"We need that in our work force in the future, and we've got people now who can help the schools develop that, so it's a perfect fit for us," Barrett said. "These are designed to kind of recognize teachers who are doing innovative things in the classroom but maybe don't necessarily have the funds to pay for it."
Non-fiction books, for example, were a key component of what Holloway wanted to elevate her students' lives.
Most of Mattie Romba's friends don't like to read. But she does, thanks to Unum's book grant for her classroom.
She especially likes a book she's currently reading about the Holocaust. It helps her better understand her grandfather, who served in World War II, she said.
"I think that depending on what your job is, you can apply all the stuff from what you read over the years," she said. "But my friends hate it."
Unum's hoping to change her friends' minds, too, Barrett said, and make them more like Niko Simpkins.
Simpkins read a book about a young girl who suffered through China's so-called Cultural Revolution, which cost millions of lives to starvation and brutality. The book helps him to understand the differences between Hixson and Hong Kong, Simpkins said.
"The book talks about China, it talks about a different culture," Simpkins said. "I'd never been to China but now I feel like I understand it."
One day he wants to read an entire encyclopedia. Allie Bishop, on the other hand, sees reading a little differently.
She's into mystery novels, and like that moment of suspense she feels between pages.
For her, the words themselves are a way to understand the world around her, to label things and better appreciate the everyday objects that make up her existence.
That reading comprehension will serve Bishop well later in life, and Unum hopes that all its micro-grants have the same impact, Barrett said.
"This is our future work force, so we feel its important for us to develop that workforce," Barrett said.
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at email@example.com or 423-757-6315.