Bright Minds Academy celebrates summer’s end, launches first fundraising campaign

Published 12:01 am Thursday, August 11, 2022

SALISBURY — A local education enrichment program is looking to make waves with its first fundraiser.

Bright Minds Academy has been powered by volunteers and out of founder Toni Cook-Smith’s own pocketbook since she started the program seven years ago. The nonprofit provides after-school programs, tutoring and summer camps for local students.

Cook-Smith started Bright Minds in 2016. The summer camps come with a nominal fee of less than $80 per weekend, and many students in the program have scholarships.

Cook-Smith said she started Bright Minds because she wanted to address summer learning loss in local students. The phenomenon sees students returning to school having lost some of the gains they made during the school year. Cook-Smith said many of the students in the program have disadvantages.

She got some help from her sister in setting up the program that comes complete with guidelines and an application. In 2015, she started with seven kids in the camp because that was how many she could fit in her car for field trips.

A trip to the store to get more supplies for the campers turned into a math class based on price calculation.

“What I love to see is when it clicks and they get it,” Cook-Smith said.

The students work on core skills like reading and math, but Smith said she wants to see the missing pieces come together in their education, so she tackles social emotional topics like dealing with conflict, preventing bullying and teaching responsibility.

Over the years the program has grown from the scrappy SUV field trips and supply runs to serving more than 50 kids this summer, with access to other organizations’ vehicles, this year giving a lot of kids their first trip to Carowinds.

The kids are getting exposure to local people in careers that interest them, from jewelry making to the popular truck driving, a visit complete with a tractor-trailer.

Something that has not changed over the years is the limited funding for the program and Cook-Smith, a hair dresser by trade, continues to keep Bright Minds running with her own money.

Fast forward to this past Thursday, when the organization was celebrating the end of its summer programs with food, music, acknowledgment of each of its students, and an announcement: Bright Minds is starting a funding campaign.

Cook-Smith said this is the first year she is working with a team who volunteered to raise money to expand scholarships and programs. Bright Minds board member Margaret Drummond said the initial goal is $10,000.

Cook-Smith said the organization is trying to secure its own transportation, iPads like the models kids use in school every day, and programs to track their academic progress.

Drummond lives and works in Charlotte, but she said Cook-Smith’s passion is what drew her to working with Bright Minds. She first got in touch with Cook-Smith because she enjoyed the sermons and activism at Mission House, where   Cook-Smith’s husband, Anthony Smith, is pastor. He was also elected to Salisbury City Council last year. Drummond got to know the couple and found out about Bright Minds through Mission House, though they are organized separately.

Drummond said the individual attention each student gets in Bright Minds makes it special.

Gabriella White, a junior at Appalachian State University who has been working with Bright Minds for the past four years, also got to know Cook-Smith through the church. She needed volunteer hours in high school and decided to come onboard even though she was skeptical about working with children. What made the difference for her was seeing the journey each student goes on.

“You love who they are and who they’re becoming,” White said. “Some of these kids have come a long way.”

The organization has set up a private donation campaign via GoFundMe here: