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Echo Garrett

College of Liberal Arts alumna

Echo Garrett, a 1982 Auburn University alumna, has spent the better part of the past decade working with Sam Bracken, a former homeless teen who overcame the odds to not only attend college at Georgia Tech, but become a successful businessman. The pair turned Bracken's life story into the award-winning book, "My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change," aptly named for the orange duffel bag Bracken used to carry all his possessions as a homeless 15-year-old. The book is their basis for creating the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative. The metro Atlanta-based nonprofit provides certified life plan coaching to at-risk youth age, 12-24, especially youth aging out of foster care and homeless youth. Most of the images in the book were contributed by Garrett's husband, Kevin, a 1981 Auburn alumnus. The Garretts have two sons.

Garrett has been a journalist for 30 years. A former contributor to publications such as Money and Business Week, she has been published in more than 75 national magazines, newspapers and websites including The New York Times,, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Parade and Delta Sky. She's also contributed to or authored a dozen books. Garrett will be the keynote speaker for the Women's Philanthropy Board Winter Workshop, Expo and Luncheon on Tuesday, Feb. 4, at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center.

1. How did you decide to attend Auburn University?

I was a first-generation college student and I attended a small private Christian high school in Nashville, Tenn., where virtually all of my classmates went to the college associated with the high school. I sat in my high school guidance counselor's office and looked at college yearbooks. I thought Auburn's was the best and since I was the yearbook editor, I figured it was a sign.

2. How did you meet Sam Bracken and how has his personal story affected you?

When I met Sam Bracken, he was the senior vice president of marketing for Mohawk Industries and I was hired to write a marketing brochure for the company. On the way to my first meeting with Sam, I got caught in one of Atlanta's famous traffic jams. The two guys from the design firm doing the project started telling me stories about Sam's life because they knew I wrote books. I thought, 'If even half of these stories are true, Sam's life would make a great book." Once Sam and I got together, we shared a passion for changing the game for homeless youth and teens aging out of foster care. What little support is available typically ends for kids once they turn 18 and it hadn't changed in the 30 years since Sam was in college. So we decided to start a nonprofit that would address the lack of community connections and solid planning for our nation's most vulnerable young people.

3. What do you think makes the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative so successful?

With our coaching approach, we help the young person focus on the positive in his or her life, identifying strengths and then helping coach that young person to develop an achievable life plan based on his or her desires. More importantly, we stay in our graduates' lives for as long as they want us there. We are not just a life skill program that is a one-time event. Our family of advocates works with our grads to support them as they work their life plans. The independent assessments of our 12-week coaching program prove that we impact critical thinking, so our grads learn how to make better choices. They also have told the researchers that the story telling aspect – hearing other people's stories and telling their own – is a powerful, inspirational tool.

4. Your husband Kevin suffered a mild traumatic brain injury as a result of a car accident in 2004. How has that helped your work with the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative?

I wouldn't say that it has helped my work. Kevin and I married right after I graduated from Auburn and we've run our business together for two decades – writing books and having a blast. His accident was devastating for our entire family. We'd been considering adopting a girl from China or out of foster care, but after his accident, we both knew that wasn't in the plan. We prayed that God would take our desire to help orphans and expand on it somehow. I met Sam Bracken the very next week. Kevin works as a professional advertising photographer and is now writing again, too. He gave us more than 60 original images to illustrate "My Orange Duffel Bag." The book won two international awards for Best Design and that's largely due to Kevin's work. He also took the photos for the recent article on Orange Duffel Bag Initiative for Parade. I'm really proud of him. He's my best friend.

5. What's your favorite Auburn memory?

Meeting my future husband at a campaign rules meeting for the Student Government Association. Kevin was running for off-campus senator. That year, the position of Glomerata editor was oddly still an elected position. Turned out lucky for me. We started dating in February 1980 and have been together ever since. He asked me to marry him on the top of Haley Center because it was the tallest building in town.

Jan. 27, 2014