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At this aviation camp, minority students’ dreams take flight

Jim Shaw started ACE Academy because minority kids were being excluded from other camps

Jim Shaw was in a board meeting with the board of directors of North Carolina’s Department of Transportation, Division of Aviation, when he had a notion that he could change lives.

“When we called the meeting to order, they started showing me a PowerPoint of these kids around the airplanes, and this white lady was kicking me in my foot telling me to look and I couldn’t figure it out,” said Shaw. “They kept talking and she kicked me again, and I looked at her and I’m wondering why is she kicking me, and I looked in her eye and I saw what she was trying to tell me. It was all white boys. There were no girls. No black boys. No black girls. No Hispanics. No nothing. So I shook my head at her and told her I got it.”

After an extended meeting that was prolonged by Shaw’s persistent questioning, he met with the head of the board of directors privately and told him that he wanted to start an aviation camp for students in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Shaw was granted $5,000 for his first state-run camp in 2010, and he’s never looked back. This year is the eighth consecutive year that the Jim Shaw Aviation Career Education Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina has provided minority teenagers an opportunity to become immersed in the field of flight in an effort to inspire more minority influence in aviation careers.

High school students, instructors and counselors at the 2018 JSACE Academy camp in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Aldeen Smith

Shaw says the camp was so successful that after the first year, Beverly Perdue, the governor of North Carolina at the time, sent him a letter saying that Jim Shaw’s A.C.E. Academy ran the best academy in the state of North Carolina and no other aviation camp in the state could do what they did.

Shaw’s camp started with 14 kids, and this year it had 79 (41 middle schoolers and 38 high schoolers) participating over the past two weeks. Over the years, he says the camp has taught about 250 students.

“They were doing [these camps] not to include us in it,“ said Shaw. “But I’m going to do [this camp] because I know, by hell or high water, I can make it work.

“I’m convinced that our young kids don’t understand aviation, they don’t know about aviation, but all they need to know is a little science and math and they can conquer aviation,“ Shaw said. He’s just started to track if previous students have going into aviations studies or careers.

According to the director of the academy, Tony Colburn, students who participate in the camp attend classes that teach them the intricacies of aviation, including how planes fly as well as the business behind it. Students get hands-on experience of flying a small plane with the assistance of professional pilots. Helicopters are also a part of the students’ education, getting instruction on how to start it, its safety procedures and a session on becoming a pilot.

These experiences have not only taught these students how to fly, it’s led many of them to chase their dreams.

“This camp has really inspired me to go out and achieve my dreams. Being a pilot has been my dream ever since I was a kid,” said Joshua Armstrong, 16, a 12th-grader who attends Quality Education Academy in Winston-Salem. “The atmosphere of this camp, the general ambiance of it … is filled with a whole lot of people who are experienced and who care, and that leads me down the right path to be what I want.“

“It means a lot for me to able to fly a plane and have a helicopter ride and do as many activities as they have in this camp,“ said Trent Dowell, 14, who attends Chip City (Ohio) Middle School. “He’s [Shaw] been a real big help, and it’s been a lot of fun.“

Director of JSACE Academy Tony Colbur talk over instruction for the day with camp counselor Willy Gray

Aldeen Smith

While being engrossed in aviation has become an enriching experience for many of the students in Shaw’s camp, the biggest sense of fulfillment probably comes from the program’s founder.

“I had a young man recently, probably in the sixth grade, after he got on the plane, it was probably the first time this boy had ever been on a plane in his life. He said, ‘Mr. Shaw, I appreciate the opportunity. I’ve had some good experiences in my life, but this is the best thing I ever experienced in my life. I wanted to get into aviation, will you help me?’ I said, ‘Son, if you stay on the right course, I will push you to the limit,’ “ Shaw said.

Almost a decade after Shaw pushed the limits of that board meeting to engineer a change in his community, he says he still has kids run up to him beaming with joy from the opportunity that he provided for them, and that makes it all worth it.

“That makes me feel like a giant when a kid does that,” said Shaw. “Just to see the smile on their face and the look in their eyes, it makes me know that I tried to do something right.”

Donovan Dooley is a Rhoden Fellow and a multimedia journalism major from Tuscaloosa, AL. He attends North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University.