Thanks to Ari Weinzweig at Zingerman’s, I have been working on a “Vision of Greatness” for Alabama Chanin over the last few months (well, closer to a year to be more exact).  However, over the last few weeks, I feel that I made real progress and worked out a growth chart and mission statement that is a good fit for both me and for our staff (more on that soon).  Part of our Alabama Chanin growth mission includes committing ourselves to education on all levels and to finding even more ways to give back to our community.

Last month, we found a company – just around the corner from our own factory – who is doing just that.

12 for Life is a part of the Southwire Company – a manufacturer of wire and cable used for electrical services – that has plants in Carollton, Georgia, and Florence, Alabama.  The 12 for Life initiative run by Southwire is really an expanded study/work program for at-risk high school students. The premise of the program is that if a student can “complete a full 12 years of education, they will have better lives.”

Four years ago, the graduation rate in the Florence City School system was 68%. This means that approximately 1 in 3 students didn’t make it to graduation. The reasons for drop-outs are numerous and can include economic or emotional strains, lack of support in completing educational goals, or simple lack of guidance.  Today, the graduation rate in the Florence City School system has jumped to 85.89%. The goal for Florence City Schools for next year is 88% and they hope to reach 90% for the following year.  The superintendent of our school district told me in a meeting last Wednesday that the increased graduation rate – as well as the projection –  is directly related to the work that 12 for Life is doing in our community.

12 for Life tackles the drop-out rate by addressing economic difficulties. They provide stable income ($9.00/hr for the students working at our local plant) and fund additional tutoring for basic subjects. Southwire offers financial incentives for students who make good grades and meet attendance goals – you don’t go to school, you don’t get to work. Additionally, the company offers education in basic life skills like balancing a checkbook or filling out a job application. They provide a summer school program IN their factory with a dedicated teacher. Perhaps more importantly, 12 for Life provides a place for at-risk students to belong. The students work and study shoulder-to-shoulder with other at-risk students on a daily basis. They even built a float for the Florence High School homecoming parade last year.

From the 12 for Life website:

“By providing our students with classroom instruction, on-the-job training, key work/life skills, mentoring, and employment opportunities, we’re helping them stay in school, graduate, and go on to become successful, productive members of the workforce – ensuring those real-world skills translate into real-life success.”

“It’s a truly cooperative program, a partnership between community and school that targets students who are at a tipping point in their life. 12 for Life is not a vo-tech program. Instead, our program administrators work with each individual student to customize an education, training, and work plan built around each student’s unique challenges and needs to help that student graduate on time – and with a regular high school diploma.”

Stu Thorn, the president and CEO of the Southwire Company said it best, “Southwire has a very broad point of view of what success means and it is not just defined by dollars and cents but it is also defined by how we impact the lives around us.”

For me, this is education and community involvement at its very best.  Books like Shop Class as Soulcraft address the issue that not every good student was meant solely for book learning; many of us are happier working with our hands. Truth be told, I barely graduated high school myself.  Only when I reached college – then after working for several years and having a child – did I realize the gift of education.

I believe that I was SEARCHING for a connection like this in high school. Instead, I worked at the local fast food restaurant, a drug store, and took a wide variety of summer jobs – just getting by as well as I could.  It seems to me that 12 for Life has found a way to give a student a job with a lasting outcome, a job with real education connected. This work changes lives.

We are proud to announce that Alabama Chanin will be teaming with 12 for Life and the Florence City School system in the coming months. All of us at Alabama Chanin are looking forward to becoming more and more involved in our community and to welcoming our first 12 for Life team member.

I have to say that the men and women involved in the 12 for Life project are some of the most passionate and inspired people I have met in a long time. Their enthusiasm for each of their students is inspiring.  I am so proud to have this program in our community and to have the opportunity to be a part of something that feels so RIGHT. And I am grateful to the entire 12 for Life team for making it possible for one of their students to work with Alabama Chanin.

Look for more on the 12 for Life program over the next months and contact 12 for Life to find out how you can get involved or sponsor at-risk youth in your community.

Here are 10 work ethic traits that 12 for Life strives to instill in their students – seems to me an important list of traits for my own office:







Organizational Skills




A place of magic for the students who have graduated through the 12 for Life program: Southwire Company, a part of the heart and soul of this community and our nation.

5 comments on “THE HEART: 12 FOR LIFE

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  1. Susan

    What a great idea and program. Our public schools need our support. If the people in the community just spent a few hours a month in their local school our children would be much better off. Just helping read to the young kids, helping with math, there are many volunteer jobs that can be done.

    I started a program in my local elementary school doing hands-on engineering and science activities 5 or 6 times a year for each K-5 grade. The kids love it, and they are now developing a love for science and an interest in engineering. We are always looking for volunteers. See our projects at

    Good luck with your work, and thanks for getting involved in public schools. They are not nearly as bad as their reputation, and with community help and involvement could be better!

  2. Kim Bennett

    What a wonderful program. I believe the school system loses so many kids because they can not make the connection between what they are taught in school and what they need in the real world. Programs like this show a child the connection between learning English and holding a job, how math really matters and on and on.
    Every child deserves an education. Every child is teachable. It is our job to find the best way for each child to be successful.
    Bravo to 12 For Life and Alabamachanin.