Trelani Grace, a high school junior at Restoration Academy in the Birmingham suburb of Fairfield, Alabama, recaps her and her classmates’ field trip to Atlanta in one succinct but fitting exclamation.
“I feel like I was in shock this whole trip,” Grace said. “I don’t think it’s registered about everything we did yet.”
It most definitely was not the average school field trip, but instead an experience filled with lessons of resilience, possibility and hope. Members of Coca-Cola UNITED Public Affairs and Communications team (Christy Danzy, Corporate Community Relations Manager, and Cassandra Mickens, Corporate Communications Manager), along with leaders from the company’s East Region, hosted six Restoration Academy students March 23-27 in Atlanta, home of Coca-Cola’s global headquarters, as part of the school’s Cultivating Hope program.
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Restoration Academy is supported through private donations to provide a quality, private education to children of low-income families. Its Cultivating Hope program, in which students must apply to be selected, aims to “create relevant experiences for young men and women from Birmingham who would not otherwise have such an opportunity.” Students travel to the world’s largest and most diverse cities, meeting with leaders from some of the world’s largest companies and creating lasting memories and connections with the people they meet along the way.
Students Jacob Cohill, Grace, Justin Lovejoy, Valencia Reese, Rasheed Walker and Anthony Williams, along with Restoration Academy Executive Director Brian Goessling, Associate Director Ty Williams and Guidance Counselor Lily Leath received a warm welcome from UNITED’s East Region and Atlanta South Metro Sales Center leaders on the first full day of their trip.
UNITED East Region Vice President Crawford Jones, Atlanta Division Director Victor Ragland, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director Carl Hill, South Metro Sales Center Manager Rudd Cummings and East Region Media and Promotions Manager Ally Terry shared the history of UNITED, explained their roles and responsibilities, and answered questions. The exchange sparked the students’ interest in potentially working for UNITED one day, as they learned a variety of backgrounds and skillsets are needed and valued in the bottling industry.
“It was cool to see a lot of women doing the jobs that they do here,” Grace said. “Ms. Christy, Ms. Ally and Ms. Cassandra took the cake on that one.”
“Mr. Carl is my buddy. He’s so enthusiastic,” Lovejoy said. “He graduated from Xavier University and Xavier is one of the schools I’m interested in.”
A tour of the South Metro warehouse led by Warehouse Shift Operations Manager Kevian Weems gave the students the chance to see how customer orders are processed and built using UNITED’s state-of-the-art Vertique case picking system. The students also toured UNITED’s College Park Production Center, where Facility Manager Michael Fitzhenry explained how Coca-Cola beverages are produced and packaged.
“Having the people in the room, on the tours, talking about their lives, talking about their experiences was my favorite part of the whole trip. I learned so much and our students learned so much,” Goessling said. “I had two or three of our kids come up to me and say, ‘Man, that was really neat! I can see myself doing something like this.’”
A sampling of new beverages like Coca-Cola Starlight and Fanta Dragon Fruit Zero Sugar, and a trivia game in which Coca-Cola swag was up for grabs were followed by dinner at the acclaimed LowCountry Steak, where students tried dishes like calamari for the first time.
Day 2 of the experience kicked off with a full schedule beginning with remarks from UNITED Senior Vice President, Chief Operating Officer and President and CEO-elect Mike Suco. Suco, who will become President and CEO of UNITED on Aug. 1, shared the story of his family’s escape to the United States from Cuba in the early 1960s, and the most important lessons he’s learned in life. Suco said success has very little to do with what happened in one’s past, but everything to do with how an individual drives forward.
“I love that he started his talk with us about his parents, their background and how they came up,” Reese said. “How he explained where his parents came from and why he’s the person he is today was really cool to me.”
For Cohill, he will remember the three Ps for success that Suco shared with the group – Pray. Plan. Perform.
“It gave me a new perspective on how I should take the day,” Cohill said.
After a short break, the students returned to the sight of autographed Atlanta Hawks jerseys and basketballs at their seats. It was then that Ragland announced a surprise – the students would attend that night’s game between the Hawks and the Golden State Warriors at State Farm Arena. Stunned silence and disbelief gave way to smiles and cheers.
“Everything we’ve done, you can’t say fun because you can have fun anywhere like Six Flags. This is something most people won’t experience,” Lovejoy said.
The afternoon was spent touring the historic Morehouse College and visiting the Georgia Aquarium. Soon it was time for the students to suit up in their new jerseys and head to the Hawks game, where Ragland unveiled another surprise – customized Hawks jerseys with each student’s name printed on the back.
And the surprises didn’t stop there. The students visited the Coca-Cola suite at State Farm Arena and stood courtside watching Hawks and Warriors players warm up before the game.
“Only important people get on the court. That experience was just … Wow!” Reese said. “Not many people are able to take a picture on the court.”
The Hawks were victorious that night and so were the students, most of whom said it was their first-ever NBA game.
“This trip has provided our students with social capital and exposure to opportunities that I’m sure many people could only dream about,” Williams said. “These are opportunities that growing up in the inner city for many students would not be possible. We’ve had men and women who have the heart to want to expose our students to more than what’s there in the community. Through these opportunities, we hope for a small window to be opened for students to look through and say, ‘Hey, that could be me. That could be my opportunity for the future.’”
The students were able to sleep in after their exciting night before Day 3 got under way at the famous World of Coca-Cola and later the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park. The afternoon was free for the students and their chaperones to explore the city on their own. As the experience neared its end, both students and faculty reflected on the takeaways of the past few days.
“Our students want to see and dream bigger than what we see in our current realities. They are asking themselves what could be in the future, what could I be and what are the realities I haven’t thought of before, but now I’m thinking about because of what Coca-Cola did for us on this Atlanta experience,” Goessling said.
Grace said for she and her classmates, the time spent with their new UNITED friends won’t soon be forgotten, again repeating that one word of awe.
“All I can say is wow. This is stuff not everyone gets to do. It really was a life-changing experience.”