Here’s the thing about opportunities: They’re really easy to grab. As long as you know what they look like, where to find them, and how to put them to work.

But for the hundreds of thousands of children raised in rural communities, with few chances to explore colleges and careers and no obvious route to get there… those opportunities are not just elusive, they’re invisible.

“I didn’t know what I was missing,” says Erick DuShane. As a child in Crown Point, a town of 2,000 people in Northern New York alongside Lake Champlain, he had a gnawing sense that small-town life wasn’t for him—but little sense of what, exactly, he was missing. “I had no idea of the opportunities that were out there. I had no idea about the careers I wasn’t exposed to. But when you step outside of this small town, and you take classes, and you meet people, and you’re challenged socially, politically, you name it, you really see what’s out there.”

For Erick and thousands of other rural youth, CFES Brilliant Pathways provides introductions to transformational opportunities. Whether taking students on campus visits, connecting them with mentors, or equipping them with the Essential Skills, the tools they’ll need to succeed throughout life, we recognize that underprivileged students in small towns have to work harder to access the same opportunities as their counterparts in bigger places.

Now a junior at the University of Rochester, Erick is spending the spring semester in Copenhagen, Denmark, studying child development and diversity. Ultimately, he wants to work with at-risk youth, understanding the effects that trauma has on young lives. Those opportunities have led him to a career path shaped by his own reality: After losing his own mother at an early age, Erick can trace his aspirations to help other kids overcome the challenges in their own lives, and help them find the resources they may not otherwise have access to.

Before he gained the experiences that awoke him to the possibilities of such a career, though, it took CFES to expose him to college in the first place. Erick visited his first campus in 6th grade, when he went to Marist College on a CFES-led field trip. And while Erick doesn’t remember much about the campus, he remembers the feeling he got from it: Inspiration. And a sense, to a kid who felt he didn’t really relate to much in his small town, that there were places out there he could relate to.

“CFES definitely provided me with experiences and resources that motivated me to work for this long-term goal of getting a good college education,” he says. “It’s one thing to tell students ‘Go to school, get a good education.’ But CFES exposes you to it, and inspires you to want to do it, and most importantly, they show you how to do it.”

One way that happened was through his participation in CFES activities throughout high school. As he honed the skills he’d need to succeed—agility, goal setting, leadership, networking, perseverance and teamwork—Erick developed an understanding of how his skills could make a real impact in his community. “The idea of working with people, and working to benefit not just you, but a bigger population–that’s what I drew from my experience with CFES,” he says.

Every year, CFES Brilliant Pathways works with more than 7,000 students in 50 rural communities in New York, Vermont and elsewhere in the U.S. Many of those students are just like Erick: Full of potential and eager to push their boundaries, but they need to identify pathways they may not even know of. “Students need to see as much as possible, in order to gain a broader perspective and idea of what’s out there for them,” says Erick, who turned dozens of CFES-led college visits, trips to leadership conferences and excursions to museums and plays into fuel for his own aspirations.

Our work carries even greater weight in rural areas, where jobs are leaving, populations are sagging and a college education isn’t necessarily seen as a critical step to future success. Yet we know that it is. Postsecondary education is a prerequisite for almost all of the good, high-paying jobs being created today. That’s why we are launching an effort to raise more than $450,000 to support rural education initiatives across the country. CFES Brilliant Pathways’ efforts are critical not just to the future of these communities, but the children who grow up there—and we need your support.

“Remember how much untapped potential is already in small towns,” Erick says. “Providing the resources and opportunities to these kids is what it takes to tap that potential.”