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Lorrie Morgan and her band onstage

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Access to education

Events raise big bucks for local students

A little more than an hour northwest of Cullman, in Florence, Burt Helton directs an innovative education nonprofit: Shoals Scholar Dollars.

The nonprofit’s roots date back to 2011, when members of the local Rotary Clubs heard about what a Rotary Club in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, was doing.  

“The only problem was, there were 17 high schools in both Colbert and Lauderdale counties, and at the time, Rotary had $0 to help make this project come to life,” said Helton. “A recently retired school administrator, Dr. Randy Pettus, was approached by Harold Lewis (a longtime member of Florence Rotary) about spearheading this project.  Dr. Pettus was skeptical but accepted the position (becoming the sole employee at Shoals Scholar Dollars).  At the time, he had a budget of less than $80 to start building what would become Shoals Scholar Dollars.  After three years of fundraising and donations, in 2014 the first Shoals area students were receiving college tuition.”

Helton was brought on to continue the program's legacy in 2023.

“The Shoals Area believes that helping our young people gain access to education is the key to a better life for each of us and our beloved community,” he said.

For every graduating senior in Colbert and Lauderdale counties, Shoals Scholar Dollars provides free tuition to Northwest Shoals Community College for two years, and if students wish to transfer on to the University of North Alabama, the nonprofit helps qualifying students with that as well.

“Many of our students are first-generation college students and otherwise would not be able to afford postsecondary education,” Helton said. “Since 2014, we have helped over 3,000 local students apply and attend college – many getting a two-year associate degree and joining the local workforce.  Through only fundraising and donations, we have raised over $3 million for Shoals Scholar Dollars.”

Just how does the nonprofit raise the funds for this? It hosts multiple events year-round, many worth the drive from Cullman!

Among the most popular are:

Speaker Series: An intimate night of dinner and discussion with influential Alabamians. This year’s speaker was Eli Gold.

Shoals Student of the Year: The "Academy Awards" for local high schools. Each school goes through a nomination process to select one student for SOY. Those 17 then come together for a multimonth programming culminating in the Student of the Year Awards. 

Smoke on the Water: Held each year in April at McFarland Park, 40-plus cook teams from across the U.S. compete for prizes at this Kansas City BBQ sanctioned competition. 

June Jubilee: Held each year on Father's Day weekend, this charity golf tournament is one of the largest hosted at Robert Trent Jones in Muscle Shoals. 

Shoals Dragon Boat Festival: This October event is held on the banks of the beautiful Tennessee River.  Competitors compete in 40-foot Dragon Boats that are manned by 21 people.  Teams are composed of people from local businesses, colleges/universities, church groups, civic organizations and neighborhoods. 

Legends in Concert Series: This event is hosted multiple times during the year.  The goal is to bring some of the most legendary and iconic entertainers for a night of music and laughs.  Those have included Crystal Gayle, James Gregory, Lee Greenwood, The Oak Ridge Boys and Lorrie Morgan.  Just booked are the Platters/Coasters and Drifters for a late summer show.  The most exciting news to come from this series is that the nonprofit is contracting with touring Broadway shows to bring some of the most beloved and revered shows to the Shoals area.

“All of our events not only help raise money for Shoals Scholar Dollars, but they bring new audiences in to make them aware of this truly unique nonprofit,” said Helton. “We have different communities reach out to us often wanting information about our roots and how we are able to keep this program growing stronger every year.”

He continued, “This program would not have come to fruition without the founding members and community leaders who saw value in our program.  We have had some of the most committed board members and community volunteers.  In addition, our schools are huge cheerleaders for our program.  Our local business/industry sector sees the value in Shoals Scholar Dollars and continues to support and promote our organization, along with our generous donors.  There are way too many to name individually. What they all have in common is their belief of our program and mission and the results our community is seeing. The economic impact of Shoals Scholar Dollars is truly remarkable.”

Get more details about the program and its upcoming events at 

"This program would not have come to fruition without the founding members and community leaders who saw value in our program."

"All of our events not only help raise money for Shoals Scholar Dollars, but they bring new audiences in to make them aware of this truly unique nonprofit."

  • County Road 26 performs.
  • Just some of my sweet family
  • Shoals Scholar Dollars Executive Director Burt Helton speaks.
  • Emma Wright on stage at a recent Legends in Concert Series event.
  • Emma Wright
  • The legendary Lorrie Morgan performs at a recent Legends in Concert Series event.
  • Lorrie Morgan and her band onstage