Starting in October, Huddle House of Calhoun will feature 16 pieces of student writing from across Calhoun and Gordon County on its tables each month. Student authors will be given the opportunity to eat for free at Huddle House each day during the month that their work is displayed, and restaurant diners will have the opportunity to respond to the essays in notebooks that students will receive at the end of the month.
‘Write to Win,’ as this writing incentive program is commonly known, is just one of the ways in which Huddle House owner Gregg Hansen has gotten involved in boosting literacy in local communities. Hansen is one of Huddle House’s most successful franchisees with more than 18 locations open under his leadership across the U.S., and each of these restaurants has partnered in some way with local schools. But, Hansen said his relationship with Calhoun and Gordon County Schools is “probably the strongest relationship that [his restaurants] have.”
The strength of this relationship is what led to the Gordon County Chamber of Commerce naming Huddle House of Calhoun its first business partner in education. Belwood Elementary School Principal Justin Timms said the Education Workforce Development Committee chose Huddle House because Hansen had approached all of the partnerships with such good intentions, expecting nothing in return.
“They were the first selected, and that’s because Mr. Gregg Hanson came to the schools, reached out and said, ‘Never be afraid to ask me for anything because I’m not afraid to say no.’ What a great way to start a relationship,” Timms said.
For Hansen, being open to creating programs that meet a specific school need is at the heart of developing a partnership.
“We have always tried to create programs with the schools that would help them get done what they need to get done by allowing them to set the priorities. We just try to help support,” Hansen said. “We have a passion to want to help and believe wholeheartedly that if we do business in a community, then we owe that community something in terms of developing the future citizens of that community.”
Teachers and staff at Red Bud Elementary School are especially thankful for this approach. It has allowed them to become creative in the ways they incentivize things like school attendance, literacy, good behavior and academic success.
“We are very excited and grateful for all of the support they show to our schools and the commitment they have to celebrating the success of our students in all areas of school life, from academics to attendance and behavior. They’re always so willing to support us in any way that they can,” Red Bud Principal Debra Brock said. “In addition to that, they provide support and encouragement for our teachers. They work so hard and that treat of having a meal is something they really appreciate. Gregg is always willing to help encourage us, and we appreciate that so much.”
In creating school partnerships, Hansen said he only has two rules: 1) Schools should be willing to ask if there is a way Huddle House could help them. 2) The restaurant has the right to say no if it’s something that they aren’t able to pull off. But, so far, the second rule has never applied.
“Gregg is just wonderful. He told us we should never be afraid to ask him for anything we need. He said if there was ever a time when they couldn’t help, he’d be honest with us about that,” said Complex Principal Beth Holcomb. “But he’s never actually told us no on anything we’ve asked for.”
Ashworth Middle School Literacy Coach Andrea Salmon also had nothing but kind things to say about Hansen.
“I cannot remember a time when Huddle House was not a diligent supporter of literacy for Ashworth Middle School. Over the years, Huddle House has gone above and beyond to exhibit student writing in their restaurant as well as help celebrate our Young Georgia Author winners, their parents, and our faculty and staff with a delicious breakfast,” she said. “Their partnership is valued and appreciated!”
In addition to the Write to Win program and a breakfast in celebration of Young Georgia Author winners, Huddle House of Calhoun provides free meal certificates to students who reach their reading goals throughout the school year and to participants in the Big Jacket/Little Jacket mentorship program at the Complex. The restaurant hosts Spirit Nights with a percentage of proceeds from dinners sold going to local schools, raffles off Huddle House for a Year with proceeds going to local schools, provides breakfast once a month for Calhoun City teachers and staff who have shown innovation in their craft, and for homeroom classes at Calhoun Primary and Elementary schools with the highest attendance rate, and honors students receiving Character Rewards with free Huddle House breakfasts.
At the start of each year, Hansen said Huddle House also puts on something known as the ‘BooHoo Breakfast’ for parents of incoming kindergartners.
“It’s just a way to help parents feel better on the first day they drop their kids off. It makes it a little easier emotionally for them if they can hang out at the school for a little bit and have breakfast. They get a buffer,” he said. “At the same time, it gives the school a chance to talk to them about getting involved and important start-of-school information they need to know.”
Two of the most successful and innovative partnership programs established between Huddle House and area schools are known as ‘Page to Stage’ and ‘Huddle on the Bus.’
Page to Stage is a program through which English as a Second Language (ESOL) students pen stories and submit them to the Calhoun High School (CHS) drama department for review. The submissions are judged and those selected are turned into a dramatic performance starring thespians at CHS. The writers are then bused over to the Black Box Theater to watch their work be performed on stage. Afterward, both writers and performers are taken to Huddle House to share a meal.
“It is such a good way to get kids excited about writing,” Holcomb said. “They love seeing the big kids perform their work. It makes them feel like real writers. The older kids love it too. They like seeing how happy it makes the younger kids.”
Huddle on the Bus is the program that Hansen finds the most personally rewarding. Through it, he takes two groups of first grade English Language Learner (ELL) students onto a hulled out bus inside the Complex and works with them throughout the year on vocabulary and sight words. He also reads to them, something he said he has been doing “every Wednesday morning in a school somewhere for a long, long time.”
At a school in another county, Hansen remembers fondly a time when he read to the same group of students every Wednesday for three years. He started reading to them when they were in the third grade and moved up each grade level with them until they were ready to leave for middle school. Getting to know them and watch them grow was an amazing experience, and saying goodbye when it was time for them to move on was painful for both sides.
“When I tell that story, I always get a little choked up because when I read to them for the last time, it was so hard saying goodbye. In all likelihood, I may have been the single adult who had read to them the most other than their teachers in their lives,” Hansen said. “We had some real relationships there. It was hard on me and them to say goodbye.”
When asked why he still does this type of partnership work, Hansen’s answer came quickly: His wife, Maria, has been an educator for 20 years and all of his children work with kids in some way. His two daughters, Casey and Valerie, are a former regional director of Child Protective Services and a pediatrician, respectively. His son, Michael, is a high school administrator. Working with kids is a family passion.
“I think there is just as much value for me doing this work as there is for the students. Maybe not. Maybe they get more value out of it. I hope so, but I know I get a lot from it,” Hansen said. “As I look back through the years, this is one of the experiences that mean the most to me.”