Story by Natalie Lauri
Photos by Art Pekum & Jenny Tolep
An African proverb says that it takes a village to raise a child. That’s the philosophy at Ruby Slippers Academy. Deanna Reed, co-founder of the program which is now known as Precious Gems Academy, says she was inspired by her upbringing. “I’m from here, and when I was growing up a lot of people had their hand on me. It wasn’t just my mom and my grandmother and my aunts; it was my grandmother’s friends, women at my church, my schoolteacher, the only African-American teacher at Harrisonburg High School,” says Reed. “They all had their hand on me to make sure that I did right, got through school, and got to college.” She wanted to bring that approach to the current Harrisonburg community, so she helped start Ruby Slippers Academy.
Every day after school, 52 Harrisonburg girls between the ages of 5 and 17 years get the “village” experience that Reed did. It all started almost four years ago. “2009 was kind of a rough year for Harrisonburg. There were a couple of shootings that went on in the area, and so there was a town hall meeting,” says Reed. “A group of us women came, and they kept asking us, ‘We need to do something, what are we going to do?’ And so we came together and said, ‘Let’s start with our girls.’” “We started with a conversation and now we’re an academy,” says Celeste Thomas, another founder.
The academy is an after-school program that mentors young girls in the community, many of whom are at-risk. “They tend to be students who are having some kind of struggle, whether that be a struggle with getting along with peers, whether that’s a struggle getting along with teachers, whether it be that they know there’s some type of issue in the family system,” says Reed. The program strives to help young girls become positive leaders and role models in the community. Its goal is to provide each girl with the opportunities she needs to grow personally, socially and academically.
“One of the most powerful aspects of Ruby Slippers is the mentor aspect. They’re building really meaningful positive relationships with [the girls]. And just having that kind of consistent role model in their lives … I think it’s really powerful and important,” says Brent Holsinger, director of after-school programs for Harrisonburg City schools. Lala Sampson is a fourth-grader at Smithland Elementary School. She was one of two students who received the Rotary Award for outstanding ethics and behavior. It’s fitting for Lala — she wants to be a lawyer. “I want to help other people with their behavior and teach them like the teachers teach me, like Miss Deanna and Miss Celeste,” says Lala. Reed, Thomas and volunteers help the girls with homework and guidance.
“Teachers have seen improvements in test scores, and they really attribute it to Ruby Slippers,” says Jyl Gamble, guidance counselor at Smithland Elementary School. The academy brings in volunteers from colleges in the Harrisonburg community. Most of the volunteers are women from James Madison University, Bridgewater College and Eastern Mennonite University. The volunteers work with the girls as role models and homework helpers. The girls aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program. “It just makes me happy. It makes my day. I could be having the most stressful, long day, have no time in my schedule, but I’m going to make time for these girls, because they depend on you to come. You just feel good about yourself and the difference you’re making,” says Angelina Sobel, a junior at James Madison University.
Sobel has volunteered with the program since the fall of 2011. “I love the relationship with the girls, because a lot of them don’t have a positive influence in their lives,” says Sobel. “They might come from broken households, so they look forward to [coming]. And when they come in they’re so happy to see you, and they just really look up to you.” Thomas sees a mutual benefit between the volunteers and the girls as well. “Some of [the volunteers] are there because they need to have some type of volunteer hours, but I think it’s also a personal investment for them as well. It’s not just coming and putting in hours and leaving. They get to have a connection with someone who, for the most part, is very different from them,” says Thomas. The program is open and free to any girl who wants to join. “Our students are mainly low SES, [socioeconomic status], and so we didn’t want money to be in the way … [or] the girls feeling like their success is predicated upon how much money their parents have,” says Thomas.
“The girls in the program are diverse, so they’re kind of breaking down barriers and finding commonalities and building positive peer relationships with each other, which they might not have otherwise,” says Holsinger.
“It’s like sisterhood. You make friends and talk about your experiences together, and it’s nice to have people you can relate to,” says Julexus Cappell, a 10th-grader at Harrisonburg High School. Reed and Thomas founded the program with middle school girls in mind, but found the need to be greater than they expected. “We started in middle school and then those young ladies went to high school, and we didn’t want to lose the momentum that we had with them, and just say, ‘OK, we taught you some things, figure the rest out on your own,’” says Thomas.
That’s when they decided to expand into the elementary and high schools. When Ruby Slippers expanded from Thomas Harrison Middle School to Smithland Elementary and Skyline Middle School, it became Precious Gems Academy. The academy is divided into three parts: girls who are 5 to 7 years old are called “Precious Pearls;” the 8- to 13-year-olds are “Regal Rubies”; and the 14- to 17-year-olds are “DIVAs,” which stands for Dreams Inspire Visionary Action.The DIVAs program works with Harrisonburg High School students. “A lot of times when you come from the wrong side of the track, however you define that, you don’t feel precious. You don’t feel like you’re a gem, and you don’t feel like you have much to offer, because life can be very dark for you. So we want these girls to know that there is a light, and to go towards the light, and that you’re gems, and you’re precious to us, and you should be precious to yourself,” says Thomas.
The academy goes beyond helping the girls with academics. “I’ve realized what I really want to do in life, and what I need to do to get there, and not letting anything hold me back from what I want to do. It makes me feel good about myself,” says Nala Barber, a 10th-grader at Harrisonburg High School. “[Ruby Slippers] helps us know we’re beautiful just the way we are,” says Lala. Starting in April, there will be a program for boys called “Titanium.” The program hopes to benefit boys in the community just as it has benefited the girls.
“For me the biggest thing is developing that community of boys who feed off of each other in really positive ways, as they’re going through a shared experience together that’s focused on their future and what they want to achieve. It’s just so much more powerful to do that in a community, and to have those positive peer relationships,” says Holsinger. The academy is also working to become a nonprofit organization. “That would help with many things, like programming financial support [and] being able to afford them opportunities that financially their families aren’t able to,” says Thomas.
The girls travel to all three area colleges for events and tours of the campuses. Thomas says she wants them to become familiar with the idea of college, since many of their parents haven’t been there. “We want that to be second nature to them, it’s like you go to high school, you go to college. And if you’ve already been on three campuses, guess what? There are people who look like you on college campuses, and there are people that don’t look like you. Everyone’s there together for the common purpose of trying to get an education,” Thomas says. The program strives to provide opportunities for children who may not have many chances by themselves.
“You have to have a vision. … Some of these girls and boys, they don’t know that they can get out of Harrisonburg,” says Reed. “Because they don’t see it. It’s kind of that you live up to the bar that has been set, and you may not know that the bar can be raised,” adds Thomas. “A lot of their parents have not gone to college or anything of that nature. When you’re the first generation to do something, it’s always really scary. And it takes that village to help you navigate the system.” Precious Gems Academy isn’t just about helping develop girls who want to go to college. It’s about creating positive relationships for the girls with each other and with the community.
“I think it makes the girls feel like they belong to something, and I think that for this age, that is so important,” says Gamble. “Feeling like they matter and they’re a part of something important. This is somewhere to belong, to feel really good about yourself.”