New, Free Preview Event Open to Public Oct. 2, 5-7 p.m.

Celebrating five years, the SOVA Career ChoICE Youth Expo is expected to attract about 4,000 middle and high school students from seven localities, introducing them to local careers and better preparing them for work expectations. This year, the event has added something new – Expo in the Evening, a free, community-wide preview event, on Oct. 2 from 5-7 p.m. at the Olde Dominion Agricultural Center (ODAC), located at 19783 U.S. Highway 29 South in Chatham.

“We are extremely excited to offer Expo in the Evening and hope that everyone in our surrounding communities will attend to see this award-winning event for themselves,” said Dr. Julie Brown of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research. “Our participating employers devote considerable time and energy to ensuring a highly interactive introduction to career sectors, and we took their advice to extend the experience to everyone throughout the community. It is a fantastic opportunity to learn what businesses and job opportunities are available throughout Southern Virginia.” 

The student Career ChoICE experience will be held Oct. 3-4 at ODAC and will actively engage approximately 4,000 seventh graders and high school students in career choices within the Virginia communities of Danville and Martinsville and the counties of Halifax, Henry, Mecklenburg, Patrick and Pittsylvania.

Community members are encouraged to attend the Oct. 2 Expo in the Evening event, where they can experience the same hands-on career sector activities as the students. They can interact with regional employers, learn about school divisions’ Career & Technical Education programs, and talk to area colleges about academic programs and financial aid. There will be a drawing for $100 Amazon gift cards 6:15-6:45 p.m.

Modeled after Southwest Alabama's Worlds of Opportunity, Career ChoICE exposes students to hands-on activities by inspirational adults to ignite students' imaginations about unlimited career opportunities in Southern Virginia. Career ChoICE showcases existing job opportunities so that students will have an option to stay in the region, based on an informed career decision with a clear understanding of skills needed, education levels required and salaries they can expect. This event is an intentional effort to build a pipeline of students in strategic sectors that are aligned with economic development interests.

Platinum-level sponsors of the event include the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, Averett University, Goodyear, Piedmont Access to Health Services (PATHS), the Danville Regional Foundation, The Harvest Foundation, Microsoft and J.T. - Minnie Maude Charitable Trust. Silver sponsors include Eastman, MedExpress and Centra Health. For more information, please visit or contact Jessie Vernon at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

2017 SOVA Career Choice Youth Expo Flickr Album

The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) is pleased to announce three significant accolades for Research Associate Samantha Smith-Herndon. Ferrum College has named her a 2018 Outstanding Young Alumni Award recipient, the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce has selected her to participate in the Leadership Southside program and Middle Border Forward has accepted her as an MBF Fellow. 

Samantha Smith-Herndon
Samantha Smith-Herndon

“We proudly congratulate Samantha on her achievements and appreciate the talent, professionalism and passion she brings to her work day in and day out,” said Mark Gignac, Executive Director for IALR. “We benefit tremendously from her leadership of our drone program, which positively impacts precision agriculture as part of our regional economic transformation efforts.”

Smith-Herndon has gained much exposure and recognition for her work managing the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission’s (TRRC) Next Generation Precision Agriculture Grant. Since 2017, she has led this project involving drones and remote sensing technology to enhance farming accuracy and controlled growth for increased efficiency and cost management, known as precision agriculture. She is currently licensed as a Remote Pilot by the Federal Aviation Administration, and has served as an instructor and lecturer on multiple occasions regarding her precision agriculture work for the TRRC and IALR.

Smith-Herndon earned Ferrum College’s Outstanding Young Alumni Award for the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. The college selects three exceptional young alumni annually—a graduate from each of the three schools, with the other two being the School of Arts and Humanities and the School of Social Sciences and Professional Sciences. According to Ferrum’s website, recipients must have graduated from the college within the last 15 years and “demonstrate outstanding promise and success in a professional career.”

She will attend the Chamber’s Leadership Southside class September through April to build leadership skills through sessions centered on leadership styles, conflict resolution and team building, community challenges and opportunities, crisis leadership, facilitation and presentation skills, cultural diversity and board leadership in a nonprofit organization. Participants underwent an application process, which yielded 18 total selected candidates for the 2018-2019 cohort.

Smith-Herndon will participate in the October 2018-September 2019 MBF Fellowship program, which, according to Middle Border Forward’s website, is “a year-long leadership development program designed to introduce emerging leaders to the opportunities and challenges within the Middle Border region, encourage civic engagement and create a network of grassroots leaders poised to make a change where they live and work.” The selected fellows completed an application and selection process.

Prior to her current work on IALR’s TRRC project, Smith-Herndon served as a Research Assistant when she first joined IALR in 2012 before later being named a Program Manager. Her introduction to IALR began even earlier when she attended Piedmont Governor’s School for Mathematics, Science and Technology, located at the facility, and completed an internship with IALR. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Ferrum in Horticulture and is currently working toward a master’s degree in Plant Sciences at Virginia Tech. Earlier this year, she was presented the Rising Star Award by the Southern Piedmont Technology Council for her work in precision agriculture. The award recognizes a young entrepreneur with a new idea or initiative that has made a significant impact on the region, including Patrick, Henry, Franklin, Pittsylvania, Halifax and Mecklenburg counties and Danville and Martinsville cities.

The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) has been named by Virginia’s Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (TRRC) as the new program manager of the SOVA Vineyard Development and Expansion Program, first launched in 2016, and is currently accepting new applications for grant awards. Through the cost-share program, IALR will work with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, TRRC and the Virginia Vineyards Association to increase vineyard acreage and address the shortage of Virginia-grown grapes.

“We are excited to step into this new role with the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, and look forward to supporting vineyard acreage expansion efforts as well as growth of the Virginia wine industry,” said Mark Gignac, Executive Director of IALR. “As we strive to be a regional catalyst for economic transformation, agritourism and business development are important components of the process. IALR is excited to offer leadership throughout 34 counties in Southern and Southwest Virginia.”

This grant program, in place through Jan. 12, 2020, is designed to support Virginia’s wine industry and agritourism by providing growers incentive to expand vineyard acreage. A cost-share award of up to $3,000 per acre is available for qualified vineyard growers—reimbursing 33 percent of eligible expenditures. Vineyards with up to nine acres may receive a maximum award of up to $15,000, and those with ten or more acres may receive a maximum award of up to $20,000. Funding is awarded through a competitive process and may be sought by qualified existing growers who wish to expand their current acreage and by new growers developing their first vineyard. To be considered for the program, new growers must establish at least three acres of new vines, and existing growers must be willing to plant a minimum of one new acre. Eligible cost-share items include, but are not limited to, grapevines, hardware for trellis systems, fencing and irrigation systems.

To learn more about eligibility requirements, including a detailed map of eligible counties, growers may visit or contact Program Manager Amy Turner at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or (434) 766-6788. Turner also will assist growers with the application process, which is currently open. Vineyard grower workshops and grant program interest meetings are being planned and will be announced on

Amy Turner
Amy Tuner

The SOVA Vineyard Development and Expansion Program was developed with an overall goal of increasing production of wine grapes in Southern and Southwest Virginia. In order for wines to be marketed as Virginia wines, they must contain at least 75 percent of Virginia-grown grapes. While the number of wineries in Virginia has been increasing, the pace of vineyard expansion has lagged, resulting in acute grape shortages and the slowing of Virginia wine production. In 2015, the Virginia Wineries Association, Virginia Wine, Virginia Vineyards Association and Virginia Wine Council partnered on a strategic plan to address the issue. 




Using Technology, Science, and the Sky – Precision Agriculture

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  Thanks to a Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission grant, Institute scientists are showing Southern VA growers how to make farming more profitab...

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