By SHAWN SPRUCE
On a recent Friday afternoon, a hot rod Chevelle sits in a service bay at the Cherokee High School auto shop, hood raised. Students gather around the classic muscle car built nearly a quarter of a century before most of them were born, and pay close attention as shop teacher Richie Sneed makes a slight adjustment to the vehicle’s engine. Moments later the high performance machine roars to life, shaking the ground of the school’s north campus like the pits at Talladega.
“Man, I love the sound of a well-tuned Chevy big block,” quips an elated Sneed, who looks more like a star athlete than a middle-aged father of five. A student shuts the shiny red hood while another carefully backs the car out of the stall.
For as long as he can remember, Sneed has wanted to do three things: teach, run a business, and work on cars. For the last ten years, he’s been able to do all three at Cherokee High School, instructing hundreds of young men and women as the automotive shop teacher.
An impressive resume includes master level certifications in a host of automotive tech specialties, four years in the Marine Corps, an alumnus of the prestigious Motorcycle Mechanics Institute, business experience as the owner of a successful auto shop in Swain County, and pastor of Christ Fellowship Church in Cherokee. He also pursues environmental friendly hydroponic farming as a hobby in his spare time and looks forward to celebrating an upcoming 24th wedding anniversary with his loving wife, Trina.
The EBCI tribal member and 3200 Acre Tract resident laughs when he describes how he came into his current teaching position and the wealth of life experience that goes with it.
“I went to the Marines straight out of high school. I loved bikes so when I got out I went to MMI, moved to California, and got a job in a motorcycle shop. It was great, but a bad recession hit in 1991 that caused unemployment to hit ten percent in the area I lived. It was almost like somebody flipped a switch and no one needed a bike worked on anymore. That was my first lesson in economics: people cut back on toys when times are tough, and bikes and boats are toys.”
Oddly, the slowdown had no adverse effect on a machine shop located next door; the owner of which quickly hired Sneed who was laid off by the motorcycle shop.
“We were slammed every day rebuilding engines at the machine shop. I realized then that motorcycles would be a side line. Cars and trucks are steady business.”
From there he moved to Heartland, Missouri to teach auto repair to patients at a recovery treatment center.
“That was a humbling experience. I had come from a shop where I was the superstar and the Lord put me in a muddy Missouri field, working with parts that were covered in manure!”
By 1998, Sneed was back in North Carolina working as a fleet mechanic for Jackson County. One day a paramedic asked if he could fix ambulances, so he agreed to work on the side offering menu pricing for service procedures and to maintain vehicle records. He saved up $800 before quitting the county job, leased a building in Bryson City, and soon had a booming business grossing over $300,000 a year.
“I didn’t know it was a big deal at the time. I was just having fun working at what I loved,” he explains.
But, he later sold the business when increased overhead costs and the monotony of too many twelve hour days took their toll. Later, he worked as a sales rep at CBC printing. One day he ran into a school board member who informed him about a grant to revamp the auto shop program at CHS. The man went on to explain that he had recommended Sneed for the instructor position, but was told the talented mechanic had gone on a mission.
“I told him: Heck no, I’m not on a mission and I would have loved that job! But, turns out the guy they hired was from Franklin and didn’t know the Cherokee community. He quit after a year and they offered me the job”.
Sneed’s business background contributes heavily to his teaching approach, and Friday classes always include lessons on financial topics regarding vehicles and running a shop. On this day students spend forty five minutes completing a worksheet to identify costs of owning a car over a five year period. They work on laptops searching for online tools ranging from fuel mileage and insurance rate calculators to service estimates and vehicle registration fees.
Sneed credits a unique training he attended several years ago as part of a team of educators from Cherokee that has assisted him with introducing business lessons into his classes. Sponsored by the Sequoyah Fund, a community development financial institution that offers loans and small business assistance throughout the Qualla Boundary and surrounding region, Rural Entrepreneurship through Action Learning (REAL) is a hands-on curriculum designed to teach business concepts in a manner that complements traditional academic subjects such as history, math, and science as well as vocational arts. Sequoyah Fund Director of Program Development, Hope Huskey, explains.
“Our mission is to foster small business growth locally and provide financial education. REAL encourages youth to consider entrepreneurship as a career and teaches basic business skills with over 15 “action learning” activities that participants perform in individual and group settings. To date Sequoyah Fund has provided REAL training scholarships to over 50 local facilitators. The program is fun as well as effective, and we’re thrilled to see youth in Cherokee embrace it”.
Ally Brown is a first year auto shop student and looks forward to the day she can change spark plugs, balance the tires, and replace transaxle fluid on a vehicle of her own. But she also enjoys the finance and business lessons and would like to see REAL topics taught in her other classes. “We learn a lot more here than how to work on cars” she comments. “Richie expects us to be adults and act responsibly in the shop. I appreciate that and how he teaches us to stay out of debt and pay attention to the economy. It all makes sense when he explains it”.
Huskey adds that an upcoming REAL training will be held in Blowing Rock in June and encourages teachers and others interested in facilitating the program to contact Sequoyah Fund for more information.
Sneed is quick to point out that the CHS shop is an actual working business that sustains itself by charging customers for repairs. However, he’s also a staunch advocate of tough love who doesn’t mince words and offers the following advice to students who won’t put forth their best effort: “This class is an elective. If you really don’t want to be here, you can elect to be somewhere else”.
The bell rings and Sneed dismisses his class; watching as students head for athletic practices, buses, and cars; eager to start the weekend. A boldly printed wall decal next to the exit door reads: Dream Big, Work Hard. He takes a moment to reflect on his day and speaks.
“What I want is for young people to take something of value when they leave here and find direction. What’s really cool is to see a kid hang in there and solve a tough problem. I know that they won’t all become mechanics, and that’s ok. I take pride in watching them challenge themselves and seeing how they respond, to discover their purpose. I want them to learn what it takes to be a man or a woman, to honor yourself, your family, and your community. I call them my kids because that’s who they are to me.”
Shawn is a programs consultant with the Sequoyah Fund. For more information about Rural Entrepreneurship through Action Learning or to apply for a scholarship to an upcoming REAL training please contact him at email@example.com