KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — We’ve been spending a lot of time talking with students and parents ahead of our annual Project Grad Laptop Telethon which happens May 20. Our goal is to put a laptop in the hands of 150 qualifying Grad scholars at Fulton and Austin-East high schools.

Now, more than ever, we want our message of support to be heard by these students. With your help, we are giving them more than a laptop. We’re telling them we believe in them. The laptop is also a vital piece of technology to help them as they continue their education.

Here is a mother’s perspective.

“I’m going to keep fighting and keep advocating as a parent. It’s my most important job.”

Sharon Couch

Before she became a proud mom to sons Loren and Ryan, Sharon Couch was a force to be reckoned with on the track. A two-time Olympian, competing in 1992 in the long jump and in 100-meter hurdles in 2000.

She’s one of the most decorated female student athletes in the history of North Carolina. She was hired by the University of Tennessee to help coach women’s track on Rocky Top and subsequently named coordinator of diversity and inclusion at UT’s Herbert College of Agriculture.

While Loren is wrapping up his high school education with a 4.1 GPA at Austin-East and heading to UT in the fall to focus on Theatre Arts, Ryan prepares for another year of academics and athletics at A-E. Sharon is also continuing her education.

“I’m finishing a Ph.D. in sports and performance psychology,” she said. “The reason that I’m doing it is not for the letters. It’s for them. It’s for my sons. It’s to give them a better outlook, a better understanding of what’s happening to them and the people they’re in a relationship with.”

Sharon intentionally enrolled her sons in Austin-East, attracted by the hands-on concept of the Project Grad Knoxville program.

“That was one of the reasons we came here,” she said. “You know, going back to graduate school meant that I couldn’t work as many hours, and you know, to have two growing teenage boys and have both of them going to college within a four-year time frame, I just wasn’t sure at all if I could afford it.”

But it isn’t just about the Project Grad scholarships.

“It’s not just the money,” Sharon said. “The money is great. It’s who they become in the process and it’s the people that are literally taking them by the hand.”

Especially during some of the most challenging times in her kids’ lives. COVID-19 and the violence crisis involving some of their classmates. The most recent, the officer-involved shooting of Anthony Thompson Jr. at school.

Sharon says things must change.

“It’s a vacuum,” she said. “Whether it’s gangs, whether it’s whatever it is, those things would not be in place without poverty, without systemic racism, without inequity, but Austin-East and the kids in it; let’s do something different. Let’s do something radically different, and that’s what Project Grad is.”

Project Grad has been working for change in Knoxville since 2001 by following kids beginning in kindergarten through college and beyond, to make sure students get on track and stay there. To some, a laptop might not seem like a big deal. To others, like Sharon and her sons, it sends a powerful message.

“Laptops do change people’s lives. I know that to be sure because it’s changing our life.”

Sharon Couch

Project Grad is making a difference. Since 2001, the high school graduation rate has increased from 50% to 83%. Post-secondary enrollment for the total graduating class at Fulton and Austin-East has gone from 30% to 56%.

Adding laptops, thanks to your help, will hopefully increase those numbers even more.

Project GRAD Laptop Telethon info

Our fourth annual Project Grad Laptop Telethon is from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 20, on WATE 6 On Your Side and

For more information on Project GRAD Knoxville, visit:

Project GRAD