Zycron founder Darrell Freeman asked audience members at the United Way of Greater Chattanooga's campaign kickoff Tuesday if they wanted to invest in prisons or in educating children, considering that most well-educated children avoid prison.
Then he told the audience of the irony he noted in a 2015 visit to Brainerd High School, when he learned that the school had no computers for students despite being in "Gig City."
That year, Freeman, whose company is an IT consulting firm, bought 100 Google Chromebooks for the school, two in each classroom. And this year he pledged another $10,000 to early childhood education for the United Way's 2016 campaign.
"I've learned that talk is cheap," Freeman said. "When you invest in United Way's programs, you're investing in the future. You're investing in hope."
Freeman spoke to a large crowd at the Chattanooga Convention Center for the annual campaign kickoff. The organization's goal is to raise $11 million, about $250,000 more than was contributed in 2015.
The money means "more children getting free books. More families doing better," said United Way "spokeskid" Kelis Moore, who emceed the event with United Way Campaign Chairman Russ Blakely. The Kiwanis Club of Chattanooga and the Rotary Club of Chattanooga hosted the event.
Many people have the misconception that the United Way is an organization about raising money, President and CEO Lesley Scearce said.
She describes it an an organization about raising hope.
The United Way's goals include continuing to make sure that every child under age 5 has books in the home through the Imagination Library, she said. And it plans to increase the number of preschoolers it tests for potential developmental delays from 19 percent to 85 percent, knowing that early detection allows for intervention and better life outcomes.
The United Way also is working with Chattanooga 2.0 to increase kindergarten readiness from 40 percent of students to 80 percent by 2025. And it wants to help at least 90 percent of students feel highly engaged in learning, which will lead to more students graduating and being ready for college and work, Scearce said.
Freeman, who grew up in a Jackson Street duplex in Chattanooga, attended Orchard Knob Elementary, Dalewood Middle and graduated from Kirkman High School. He dropped out of Chattanooga State Community College after getting a 1.234 grade point average in his first quarter, he said.
He said it was by chance that he visited a friend at Middle Tennessee State University and was attracted to the school. Freeman said he enrolled and met teachers who took an interest in him. They told him he was not a victim and his success would depend on him, not what anybody did to him or allowed him to do. When he believed he was responsible for his own destiny, he said, his mindset changed and it laid the path for his success.
Freeman started Zycron after graduating college. He also is co-founder and co-organizer of Tennessee-based Reliant Bank (that merged with Commerce Union Bank) and he's co-founder of Pinnacle Construction Partners.
"Fifty years ago I was that Chattanooga child who needed your support," Freeman said Tuesday.
Then he called young Kelis Moore back to the stage.
"Today, there is a new generation waiting on your support," he said. "I believe in her future, and I'm sure you do, too."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at email@example.com or 423-757-6431.