Inspiring Stories with Erin Gruwell

Renowned Educator and inspiration behind movie Freedom Writers addressed Chamber members

Chamber members were in for a treat at the May Monthly Meeting, generously sponsored by Pickler Wealth Advisors. The financial firm played a special role in this event.  Not only did Pickler Wealth Advisors sponsor the meeting, but the company’s CEO and President, David Pickler, also helped bring in the special speaker from California to address the Chamber. Before the teacher took to the stage, official business took place.

Sam Nichols of Collierville First Baptist Church and John Stamps of Stamps Real Estate Company and Town Alderman lead the audience in prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, respectively. Ken Cope of Roof Maxx and the incoming Chamber Board Chairman took the reins for initial announcements. He thanked Collierville First Baptist Church and Simply Done Catering for their help with this large meeting. Premier Partners of the Chamber were then recognized. These companies provide heavy support for the Chamber through monetary and sponsorship contributions. Cope thanked the “best mayor in the country,” town aldermen, and school board members for consistently showing up at monthly meetings and other Chamber events. “That’s how much they believe in and support the business community,” Cope noted. Finally, Cope made a quick note of the Chamber’s Board Members. He joked that this is to whom other chamber members can go to “complain, I mean give recommendations” for Chamber functions. A list of Board Members can also be found on our website here. Cope’s portion concluded by welcoming Mark Heuberger (pronounced “Hi Burger” as one says at Huey’s) to the stage to continue with the program.

Heuberger started off by showing photos from recent Chamber ribbon cuttings from the past few weeks (Oh Grate!, Collierville Funeral Home’s new location, Staks! Pancake Kitchen, Rejuvenate 901, and A Perfect Bloom’s new gift shop). That part seamlessly lead into the Chamber’s new members, where Oh Grate! had two representatives, Courtney Jones and Amy Bingham, there to explain what the meal prep company is all about.

Next, sponsors of the meeting were acknowledged. First, speaker sponsor First National Bank & Trust were the speaker sponsors of the meeting. Heuberger provided some information about the Bank and recognized their team, who are all very involved at chamber functions: Bill Samisch (Senior Vice President), an active Chamber Board Member, Jennifer Bennett (Branch Manager) and Perri Pellettiri (former and current Ambassadors), and Jules Fletcher (Marketing Director).         

David Pickler then gave the message for Pickler Wealth Advisors as presenting sponsors of the event. “We believe in the Chamber, we believe in Collierville, and we certainly believe in education,” stated Pickler, another active Chamber Board Member. His speech married these topics. “We knew very quickly that we wanted to be part of this community,” Pickler proudly stated. He credited the special “fabric” Collierville has for choosing to start his company here and subsequent companies over a twenty-year stretch. He also acknowledged the important place education holds in his heart. His time as President of the National School Boards Association, where he met Ms. Gruwell, along with his creation of the American Public Education Foundation was pivotal. Pickler pointed out his guest Kevin Ciak in the audience, who serves on its advisory board. Education was fittingly the centerpiece of his message. Pickler ended his remarks by introducing Ms. Gruwell to the podium, whose “dedication and passion for education is clear.”

From Los Angeles, Gruwell recounted how she was first on track to become a lawyer, then changed her mind after the Rodney King verdict and its aftermath in 1991/1992. Being from the area, she wanted to do something that would positively affect the distraught community. She envisioned being a teacher as her path. So, her time in the classroom began during community turmoil, but she rose to the occasion.

She explained her difficulties connecting with students, as they were used to negative stereotypes and personal struggles. Wiping the slate clean was necessary. As an English teacher, she used words to overcome deep-rooted stereotypes. The ‘Line Game’ volleyed back and forth scenarios featuring “someone” versus “you.” These questions forced students see themselves and each other for the first time. It helped students see that they weren’t alone in some insecurities and difficulties. A clip from the movie Freedom Writers helped the audience visualize the impact of this eye-opening activity. 

Her speech was sprinkled with stories about various students who succeeded despite the odds stacked against them while encouraging the audience to do their own homework regarding important societal change, starting with looking within themselves. “I can assign homework to you, that’s a perk of being a teacher,” Gruwell joked. Her emotional and passionate speech garnered a worthy round of applause and a standing ovation as Ms. Gruwell walked off the stage.

After the stellar presentation, Heuberger returned to the stage to announce some upcoming Summer Chamber events before dismissing the meeting. The most notable announcement was an August trip to Nashville for Chamber members, hosted by State Rep. Kevin Vaughan and sponsored by Tennessee Valley Authority. Those interested in joining should contact Taylor ( or 901-853-1949) for more information.

Concluding the meeting, Gruwell and her team set up an informal meet and greet. Copies of her bestselling books were available for purchase, where proceeds go to her nonprofit, the Freedom Writers Foundation. Attendees flocked to the table and made a line of 30+ to purchase a book and meet the inspiring educator. It was about a 10–15-minute wait but worth it for attendees.