A bed, a snake and a big, blue sky

Imagine growing up where all the trees are ringed by concrete, where the only forest to explore is a crowded public park, where the sounds of rumbling trucks, honking cars, and air conditioners never cease.

Imagine never hearing a cow lowing, a creek running, or seeing a night sky filled with stars.

For many children living in New York City, this is their world.

In 1877, an independent not-for-profit organization began taking underprivileged children out of the city’s summer heat to experience life in rural areas of the Northeast. Many children suffered from tuberculosis, and “fresh air” was thought to be a preventative. Thus, the Fresh Air Fund began.

Today —138 years and 1.8 million children later — the Fresh Air Fund still provides city children respites with host families as far south as Virginia.

Jesco, Dejhaney and the Lohr kids getting their bovine on

Jesco, Dejhanay and the Lohr kids getting their bovine on

One of those families is Brian and Julie Van Pelt (‘91) Lohr of Rockingham County. Fifteen years ago Julie was a stay-at-home mom with three small children and another one on the way. What could she do to make a difference? she wondered.

“My husband’s family had hosted [with the Fresh Air Fund] when he was a child,” Julie said. “It was a pleasant memory…..We could bring a kid in.”

The Lohrs became a host family that year and have hosted nearly every summer since.

The benefit to the city children is great, Julie said. “They are unable to see past the city; this is the way we live, this is where we live, this is the way things have always been — and this is the way things will always be. If you’re stuck in a poverty cycle, that’s debilitating. What Fresh Air gives those kids is an opportunity to see outside the city, to see a different lifestyle. For some kids, it’s their first opportunity to see two parents in the same family. For others, it’s an opportunity to go outside without shoes, to see the stars. Really simple things we take for granted are brand new and thrilling for them.”

The Langridge family would agree. Last summer Nick (’00, ‘07M,’14D) and Jill Ruppersberger (’00,’04M) Langridge and their three children became a first-time host family.

“It really was a joy,” Jill said, “to see the ‘little things’ in our lives such as seeing a dragon fly buzz along the lake, roasting marshmallows over a fire or playing in a sprinkler bring so much happiness to our Fresh Air Fund child, Sincere.”

Camden and Parker Langridge with Sincere

Camden and Parker Langridge with Sincere

While the unknowns can be scary at first for host families and their guests, Julie estimates that 96 percent of the visits are successful, in large part because of the care taken with placements and the support both children and host families receive.

Julie reminisces about a 6-year-old boy name Taquan who had a rough start with the Lohrs. When Taquan arrived, it was apparent that he was very homesick. It didn’t help that it took him several days to muster the courage to tell the Lohrs that his name was “TAquan” not “taQUAN,” as they were pronouncing it. Between Taquan’s homesickness and managing a household of lively children, Julie worried. When the local chairman called to check on them, he heard the concern in Julie’s voice. “Do you want us to come pick him up?” he asked.

“That was probably the moment I fell in love with Fresh Air,” Julie said. “I realized I wasn’t on my own.” The fund offers 24/7 support to host families and the children. In the end, Taquan stayed with the Lohrs and the visit was a success.

In addition to hosting, Julie is the regional representative for Fresh Air, a job she took because she understood its importance. In that role, she accompanies children to the valley. Busses leave from NYC’s Port Authority station and deliver children throughout the Northeast to what the organization calls “Friendly Towns.” Last summer, 65 children visited the Shenandoah Valley.

“The friendly town department is made up of field managers and support staff, social workers, and people who contact the families in NYC,” she said. There is a small support staff in NYC. Outside of the city, though, everyone is a volunteer, including Julie.

Rebekah and Isaac Lohr swimming with Jesco and Dejhanay

Rebekah and Isaac Lohr swimming with Jesco and Dejhanay

To encourage families to try the program, Julie started 7-day trips, which are shorter than the usual 10-day visits.

After hosting boys for several years, the Lohr’s invited a girl, Dejhanay (pronounced “Dee-zha-nay — like the mustard,” Julie said). Dejhanay had been in and out of foster homes with little stability in her life.

“My kids loved her. I came in one day and they had taken out half of her braids ….. She loved the attention. One thing Fresh Air asks is that you have a bed available for the child, but most of the time, they would all sleep in the floor together or all pile in the bed together….One of them would come over from her room and sleep in the room with them. They all had to be together. All three girls. They just loved it.”

Jesco and Isaac Lohr wanted their picture taken to remember the snake summer.

Jesco and Isaac Lohr wanted their picture taken to remember the snake summer.

Each child comes with a different personality and that impacts the entire trip. Julie fondly remembers Jesco who found a snake in the Lohr’s yard. “He was very sensitive,” Julie said. “He had picked up that I was not comfortable [with snakes]. He said, ‘I probably won’t pick one up again. I probably won’t play with one. I’m gonna need to put it down now.’”

“[The children] would be playing Legos, and Jesco would stand up and walk out on the patio and just sit there. Sometimes he’d draw. Sometimes he’d pet the dog…..just soaking it up. He was made to live in the country.”

Benefits are not limited to the city children, Julie said. “For my kids, it’s an opportunity to appreciate what they have and to see life from a different perspective, particularly since they are homeschooled. It’s an opportunity — in a safe environment — to make new friends. They have friends now in NYC, and they’ve learned things.”

Nick and Jill Langridge with their family and Sincere

Nick and Jill Langridge with their family and Sincere

Nick Langridge, senior vice president for advancement at JMU, agreed: “For us the Fresh Air Fund was an experience that touched the whole family. I enjoyed watching our kids welcome and invite a new friend into their room, their home, and their lives, and who they became as a result. Just as we hope we offered some fresh experiences to our 6 1/2 year-old boy on a farm, at the pool and at the beach, Sincere in turn gave us great memories, lots of laughs, and a sense of what it means to really get ‘to know and be known’ as a whole family.”

Julie and the Fresh Air Fund are beginning to match NYC children with host families in the Shenandoah Valley. Anyone interested in hosting a child can contact Julie by calling 540.810.0474 or 800.367.0003 or emailing her at Julie.Lohr@friendlytown.org or the Fresh Air Fund at their website: http://www.freshair.org

See more Fresh Air Fund stories on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdTbJS2wSBg&feature=youtu.be&list=UUqs_7ueSjwYmmO4RKsTDltw



Filming the future

If President James Madison’s belief in the power of education is true, then a new school in Somalia could change a nation. Recently we learned from JMU alumnus James Irwin (’06) about filmmakers from JMU and U.Va. who are documenting Somalia’s most successful educational venture in decades. It’s an important story to share…..

Juweeriya, a 7th grade student, was the first student from Abaarso village to enroll at The Abaarso School of Science and Technology, which draws students from all over Somalia.

Juweeriya, a 7th grade student, was the first student from Abaarso village to enroll at The Abaarso School of Science and Technology, which draws students from all over Somalia.

Can one school change the future of a country?

By James Irwin (’06)

A boarding school in the world’s No. 1 failed state is sending the first wave of Somali students to American colleges in three decades. And a group of filmmakers from James Madison University and the University of Virginia are making sure the world knows about it.

The Abaarso School of Science and Technology, an intermediate and secondary academy in northwest Somalia, sent its first students to study at American colleges in 2013. The efforts of the school, launched by former hedge fund founder Jonathan Starr, is the subject of the upcoming documentary, Abaarso (working title), produced by U.Va. alumnus Harry Lee and JMU graduates Ben Powell (’05) and Kate Griendling (’08).

The three filmmakers, all Northern Virginia natives, will travel to Somalia this month to complete the filming of the project. They hope to release the documentary in 2016. (You can follow their blog here: abaarsofilm.com/blog/ )

“These students will be the first highly educated cohort in Somalia in 30-something years,” Lee said. “It feels like we have this rare opportunity to document a turning point for a country.”

Abaarso fundeer Jonathan Starr leads the school's annual field day competition

Abaarso founder Jonathan Starr leads the school’s annual field day competition

Starr, the subject of numerous articles, including a 2011 feature in Emory University magazine, closed his quarter-billion dollar hedge fund in 2009 and moved to Somalia to open the school. Decades of civil unrest, war and terrorism have crippled the country. It is a breeding ground for at-risk youth. Somalia has been the world’s No. 1 failed state since 2008, according to The Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index.

“There is a complete lack of healthcare, functioning system of governance and infrastructure,” said Lee, who spent three years on staff at Abaarso. “If you are a child in that world, you don’t have opportunities.”

The school was created to provide promising Somali students access to something that could elevate them out of turmoil, and possibly change the future of the country: an education. In 2010, Abaarso sent its first student to America for a one-year fellowship at Worcester Academy. Three years later, that student, Mubarik Mahamoud, was part of Abaarso’s first graduating class, a cohort of 32 students. A handful of them received admission and scholarships to American universities. Poor recordkeeping is a hallmark of the world’s leading failed state, but Somali experts tell the filmmakers that this is the first group of native students to enroll at U.S. schools since the 1980s.

JMU graduate and "Capturing Oswald" filmmaker Kate Griendling joined the film project in late 2014.

JMU graduate and “Capturing Oswald” filmmaker Kate Griendling (’08) joined the film project in late 2014.

Today, 29 Abaarso students are studying at boarding schools and universities in the United States, including Amherst, Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon. Abaarso recently received its first capital grant, a $291,000 investment that will expand the school by adding classrooms, dormitories and computer labs. The campus—a 200-meter-by-300-meter hilltop rectangle in the middle of the desert—has grown into a community of around 185 students and 15 faculty and staff. It’s a testament, Lee said, to how far resources can go in the developing world.

Still, the odds are stacked against Abaarso students. They are submitting grades from a school no one knows, taking standardized tests written in another language. And they need full scholarships to study in America. The documentary, Powell explained, will follow a handful of students and demonstrate a country-wide struggle for education, healthcare and women’s rights, among other topics.

Those fortunate enough to make it to America, he said, seek to return to Somalia.

“They want to go back and make it a better place,” he said. “They are cognizant of the opportunities they have. They recognize they have a chance to make a difference.”

Ben Powell ('05), pictured above, began working on the documentary in early 2014.

Ben Powell (’05) began working on the documentary in early 2014.

The filmmakers plan to blog about their experiences during the three-week trip to the country, providing an unfiltered look at a land that has no U.S. diplomatic or military presence. Powell is making his second trip to Somalia. Griendling, who co-produced the documentary Capturing Oswald in 2013, is traveling to the country for the first time.

Their goal is simple: tell the story of Somalia’s most successful educational venture in decades, and the challenges it still faces.

“We’ve seen developing countries rise and fall,” Griendling said. “This is an opportunity to showcase a country that may have a blueprint for other developing nations to replicate.”

James Irwin ('11)

James Irwin (’06)

James Irwin is a 2006 graduate of the School of Media Arts and Design and the author of Midnight in Chattanooga: The game, the team and the dream behind the rise of JMU football. Formerly the assistant director of JMU’s alumni association, James is associate editor of George Washington Today at George Washington University.

Many thanks to James for pitching the story and doing most of the work.

All photos courtesy of Abaarso Film

A pocketful of quarters

Today we feature not a student, alumnus, or faculty member but a James Madison University parent who is Being the Change…..

Unknown-3It’s mid-morning in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Sunlight shimmers through the trees. The air is warm, and parents and children are milling around the local farmers’ market when a car pulls up to the curb and a woman steps out. A little buzz rustles through the crowd. She’s here! The woman carries a brightly colored quilt and pulls a cart overflowing with books. Soon, like the Pied Piper, she gathers an audience of children who jockey for spots on and around her quilt.

They have come to hear her stories…

1507adfTwelve years ago, after a career in marketing and software development, Nicolette Nordin Heavey enrolled in a storytelling class at a local community college. “It sounded fun,” she says.

It was a natural fit for a mom of three who grew up surrounded by a culture that valued the art of storytelling. Nicolette, whose English mother and Swedish father provided her with a childhood spent partly in Belgium, England, and Saudi Arabia, was greatly influenced by diverse cultures and by the strong aural tradition of storytelling. Europeans, more than Americans, she says, preserve their history and culture through telling stories. It became a part of her — a part she shared with her three children, including her daughter, Devon, who is a freshman at JMU.

“I would be the mom in the back of the bus telling stories during school field trips,” she says.

After finishing the storytelling class, Nicolette tried out her newly-honed skills at preschools and day care centers, where she discovered that her passion for storytelling was also a tremendous opportunity.

She received a call from a social services agency in Lawrence, Mass., asking for her help in developing a literacy outreach program. The project was a family and community engagement initiative, funded by a grant from the national program Race to the Top.

Unknown-4Stories in the Street, a grant funded literacy initiative, was born out of this association, and Nicolette Nordin Heavey had serendipitously embarked on a second career that would change lives.

The choice of Lawrence was strategic, she says. With a poverty rate exceeding 60 percent, it is the poorest city in Massachusetts. And there is a clear — and negative — correlation between poverty and literacy.

Nationwide studies indicate that children from lower socioeconomic status homes lag significantly behind their peers in language skills. Much of the disparity stems from the fact that these children simply hear fewer words during the critical birth to age 4 period.

The disparity is startling.

Researchers estimate that by age 3 children from impoverished communities have heard 30 million fewer words than children from higher-income homes. Experts call it the 30-million word gap, and it is a serious problem because children do not catch up.

Nicolette knows that early language exposure is not just a nicety; it’s a lifeline to success. But because not all children are similarly blessed, she says: “You have to go to them, and storytelling is a perfect means for that. All you need is a portable mic and a colorful quilt.”

“When I first began storytelling on the street, people looked at me like I was on Candid Camera,” she says. “But soon, they began to expect me. By the end of the summer, people were waiting for me to show up.”

To offer Stories in the Street, Nicolette (and now four other storytellers who work with her) fan out throughout Lawrence. In a normal week, Nicolette will visit and “tell” at two regular spots, like a park or a farmers market, and she’ll choose a third, random location. It might be a basketball court or playground — anywhere that children gather.

UnknownOne story Nicolette likes to tell is about a lion and and a mosquito.

“I get to introduce words like ‘Serengeti,’” she says. At more-affluent schools, children who are asked where lions live might shout out “Africa!” or even “the Serengeti!” she says. Students with broader experiences and more exposure to literature know this.

But ask the same question in Lawrence or any socioeconomically disadvantaged community, she says, and children are more likely to say: “In the zoo.”

Nicolette introduces and defines new words by association. She explains: “In telling my story about the lion and the mosquito, I use the word ‘thirsty’ three times. Children understand this. The fourth time, I might say, ‘And the lion was thirsty. He was so thirsty, he was parched,’ exposing them to a new word.”

While storytelling infuses lower-income communities with literacy tools, it also benefits children in another way.

In the Hart/Risley study, which identified the 30-million word gap, researchers found a disparity in encouraging feedback — positing, perhaps, yet another benefit to storytelling: hope. Without dreams, no child succeeds…and storytelling — that simple and comfortable conveyance of stories — seeds dreams.

Stories on the Street, which is entirely grant-funded and became a nonprofit this year, has seen its funding increase four-fold over the past five years, one clear indication of both success and need.

Stories in the Street and similar programs also create a sense of community, so it’s not only the children who are eager to see Nicolette arrive. One elderly man, an employee of the city’s public works department, helped her load and unload her car at a farmers’ market.

Unknown-3 - Version 2“He also helped me with my cart filled with books,” she says. When she asked him why, his reply was affirming: “We need people like you.”

For the rest of the summer, he manned Nicolette’s parked car, feeding the meter with a pocketful of quarters to make sure she didn’t get a ticket. And the children left each storytelling session with new words, a book of their own from Nicolette’s cart, and dreams inspired by stories they heard in the street.



To read more about the 30-million word gap, go to the American Educator’s story, “The Early Catastrophe” by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.

To learn more about Stories in the Street, visit Nicolette’s website: http://www.nicolettestory.com

My newest favorite word

dictionary2_1418194cI have a new word in my personal lexicon: Gruverize.

It is defined thus:

1. to go out of one’s way to be helpful

2. to unselfishly offer one’s expertise to those who have less understanding of said expertise

3. to be aggressively cooperative

The etymology of my new word (as many in JMU’s School of Media Arts will recognize) is derived from the name of SMAD’s John Gruver.

I first heard the word more than a year ago when I asked a friend for some help with my Mac laptop. After trying unsuccessfully to solve my problem, he called in John Gruver, who quickly realized that my computer needed more than a quick fix and then offered to take an in-depth look at it.

SMAD's Jon Gruver

SMAD’s John Gruver

Now understand that John Gruver works with computers all day long, and my request was out of the purview of his regular duties. As the network and lab manager for SMAD, he is responsible for lots and lots of computers. At the beginning of each semester, he makes sure that constantly-used student and faculty equipment — essential to SMAD — is up and running efficiently and effectively. In that department — more so than in many others, I suspect — John’s role is essential.

SMAD has lots of highly technical computer equipment, so John is busy.

You also might think he would be inundated with requests from people like me. (Let’s just call us less-than-computer-savvy.) And if so, wouldn’t we be just a bother to an expert in Mac computers like John?

Apparently not.

After he worked on my computer, making it better than ever, I asked him why he offered to help me, and he said this: “I enjoy helping people. And I remember the people who helped me when I was first starting out.”

People like John make life for the rest of us better by sharing their expertise generously and unselfishly.

Years ago, I worked for a man who termed people like John “aggressively cooperative.” I’ve always liked that description because it’s more than just getting along, more than simply doing one’s job, more than just cooperating. To be aggressively cooperative means to go out of one’s way to cooperate, to seek out ways to help, and, in John’s case, to offer expertise unselfishly.

That’s John Gruver, my aggressively cooperative friend.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge the equally helpful John Hodges (SMAD’s technology manager), who introduced me to John Gruver and to my newest, favorite word, Gruverize.



Changed by a FrOG

Hannah Collins ('15), center, and her fellow FRoGs

Hannah Collins (’15), center above “McGraw,” and her fellow FRoGs

In Grimm’s fairy tale, The Frog Prince, being changed by a frog is a central theme. The same might be said for the Madison Experience of JMU senior Hannah Collins. In today’s blog, Hannah, a public relations major who has worked in JMU Communications as an intern this semester, shares her moment of change.

Full circle as a FrOG

by Hannah Collins (’15)

Everyone has the moment; a moment when he or she realizes they are a different person than they used to be; a moment when they realize they have been changed for the better. At JMU, that moment is when you realize you have come full circle.

My moment didn’t happen until my senior year at JMU, which is interesting since I thought it would happen earlier. During my first three years at JMU, I always wanted to be a FrOG, First yeaR Orientation Guide. Being the person in a goldenrod yellow shirt getting excited about life and introducing First Years to a school I loved so much; I wanted to do that more than anything. So, as a junior in college, I applied, interviewed and got the position.

Here’s what orientation doesn’t tell you: You’re at 1787 August Orientation to prepare First Years for their life at JMU, but you end up seeing a change in your own life as well. You step into training at the beginning of the week, and you come out with an experience that is so amazing it’s almost impossible to explain to other people. Nothing, and no one, can prepare a FrOG for the overwhelming emotion, excitement and happiness that is 1787 August Orientation.

I started the week in a group of ten random people: nine FrOGs and one OPA, Orientation Peer Adviser. I left that week with 10 family members. People, who knew my heart, understood my frustrations and were there to give me hugs at the end of the day when I felt like I was failing. There are no words to describe how much this feeling of family encouraged me during my orientation experience.

This is JMU; this bond between 10 people who knew nothing about each other in the beginning and came out calling themselves family. This Orientation experience was the moment when I realized JMU was home, and JMU had changed me, forever. I was in charge of 22 fabulous First Years, and I had a fantastic partner. We were the people who would introduce these ladies to the JMU world. It was terrifying and exciting all at the same time. It was the moment that I realized I could do something that scared me. It was the moment I realized I was different, and ready to take on the challenge because of what this school had done for me.

Orientation brought me full circle. It took me from a timid, nervous freshman to a prepared, adult senior. It showed me how JMU is embedded in my life now and how this school has changed me for the better.

I’m not ready. I’m not ready to walk across the stage in May to shake someone’s hand and accept a diploma. But it’s not for the reasons you think. I’m not ready because I don’t want to leave. I am, however, ready in the sense that this school has prepared me; JMU has prepared me to enter the professional world as an adult, and shaped into a human being who can take on difficult and life-changing situations.

There’s a quote that circulates every year as graduation approaches –

“JMU is not just an institution of higher learning, it is a spirit, it is an atmosphere, it is…a way of life I am glad to say that I have lived.” –Alpha Spitzer (’37)

I never knew what this really meant until I experienced it as a FrOG during 1787 August Orientation. I have spent three and a half amazing years experiencing that way of life, that atmosphere, and that spirit. I was so happy to pass it on to the next generation of Dukes who will surely be changed by this school, as I was. I’m not ready, but I am thankful. I am thankful for my moment and all my experiences, and I look forward to finding more opportunities to Be the Change as I step into my next experiences in life.

To learn more about the life of a JMU FrOG, visit http://www.jmu.edu/stories/student-life/profile-life-of-frog.shtml

GIVING thanks

As most of us revel in post-Thanksgiving stupor, here’s a story to make you smile. This year JMU alum Alissa McLaughlin (’01) and friends raised money, collected turkeys and ingredients and provided Thanksgiving meals to more than 100 families in her hometown of Philadelphia. To Alissa, food is far more than sustenance. South Philly Review writer Bill Chenervert explains why and just what’s behind Alissa’s passion for her community…..

GIVING thanks

By Bill Chenevert, staff writer, South Philly Review 

Volunteers with the Small Fry program, including founder Alissa McLaughlin, front row, middle, pack bags full of turkeys, recipes and healthy ingredients for families to take home and cook themselves.

Volunteers with the Small Fry program, including founder Alissa McLaughlin, front row, middle, pack bags full of turkeys, recipes and healthy ingredients for families to take home and cook themselves. Photo by Richard Barnes

Alissa McLaughlin, of the 2000 block of Pemberton Street, was volunteering with some children in her neighborhood, when she noticed a distinct lack of concentration in many of them with whom she was working. She asked the director of the Marian Anderson Recreation Center, 740 S. 17th St., why they seemed to struggle with behavior and focus, and the answer seems to have given her new purpose in life.

“He told me since most of the kids are on public assistance they were not eating over the weekends because they were provided school breakfast and lunch,” McLaughlin explained. “I figured if I taught the kids how to cook on Saturday and sent them home with supplies to practice the recipes, I could theoretically provide at least two healthy meals over the weekend.”

That was more three years ago, and it gave her the inspiration to start Small Fry, a program for 5- to 13-year-olds that focuses on nutrition and kitchen skills, aiming at them bringing home infectious energy and enthusiasm for making wholesome meals. And staying away from snack meals.

“The requirements are every meal has to be under 500 calories and all of the items in the recipe need to be on the food stamp-approved list so they are able to duplicate recipes at home,” the South of South resident said.

Her company, Radiant Matter, an event and logistics operation she founded five years ago, gave her the resources to start Small Fry with her own money (she admits to still figuring out nonprofit and IRS-exempt loose ends). She and her boyfriend have galvanized a strong group of volunteers and families and this past Saturday, they sent 110 kids home with turkeys, recipes and ingredients for side dishes.

“This weekend, we had 110 kids and we have 180 kids that are registered for Small Fry,” McLaughlin said, going on to describe the many things they didn’t see coming when it all got started: extreme camaraderie amongst families and volunteers, barricades of literacy and portion control and awareness of how rewarding it would be for those lending volunteer support. “The two main things are the kids need to eat, and we need to be there for these kids and be consistent.”

By showing kids how to make chicken nuggets that are baked, healthier versions of pizza, and “skinny” versions of Thanksgiving fix-ins like green bean casserole, stuffing, pie and mashed potatoes, McLaughlin has been emboldened to expand and continue Small Fry a little farther south and into subsidized housing communities.

“You can’t just fly in and fly out,” she noted. “Our community needs people that are going to walk alongside them. I’ve learned so much from my kids and their families that my life is 100 times better.”

They’re hopeful that a second location is up and running by January with an eye on Chew Recreation Center, 1800 Washington Ave.

Small Fry’s ambitions seem to grow as the program matures, too.

“We have also started couponing classes and budgeting classes for parents. We focus how to survive on one modest income” McLaughlin said, with her mom proving influential in the program’s founding and in leading lessons, too, showing parents “how to take one chicken and turn it into four meals for five people.”

As for a new space, McLaughlin and her volunteers plan on working with Community Center site’s directly because “sometimes you just kind of forge ahead.”

Thanks to South Philly Review staff writer Bill Chenevert for letting us reprint this story about Alissa and her Small Fry friends. It originally appeared on Nov. 26, 2014.


Second act

Imagine spending one day staring down death, or at least considering the possibility as real. Imagine doing so for weeks, months — or years. That is what American soldiers do — every day — and it is the memory that veterans live with every day thereafter. Some experience conflict close up; others see it from a distance, but the sacrifice they sign up for when they enlist in the military is unlike any other kind of commitment. This week, as we honor Veterans, we’d like to introduce you to one JMU student with a special passion for helping her fellow veterans. 

Chris Nelson ('15) on duty at Cedar Creek

Chris Nelson (’15) on duty at Cedar Creek

Chris Nelson (’15) knows the life of a soldier. As a retired Air Force  non-commissioned officer, she has lived the military life. For more than 20 years — 20 years and one day to be exact — Chris was an airborne missions systems specialist, providing inflight communication to, from, and among planes on various missions. One of her assignments was aboard AWACS — airborne warning and control planes — for NATO. She also flew on the National Air Operations Center, which she defines as “survivable mobile command center for the president, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the secretary of defense.”

While “I did not do combat,” she says, I flew on several combat sorties….My job was up in the air.”

That, however, did not preclude making sacrifices familiar to all veterans. She was often away from her husband and three children, and the family moved around a lot — Oklahoma, Germany, Nebraska, and finally Northern Virginia. “I did a lot of traveling, a lot of deploying around the world with small children. That was difficult,” she says.

Now she’s a full-time student — a second act in life. At 20, Chris thought college was beyond her. Neither of her parents went to college, and she says, candidly: “My parents couldn’t afford to send us to school.” But after being in the military, which, she says, encourages higher education, it became a goal. Chris is the first in her family to attend college.

She understands acutely that the transition from military life to civilian life is not always smooth. The rigors of military life, the restrictions, and all the rules and regulations are left behind. “I feel like I’ve been in a box for 20 years because there are very strict rules about how to look, what you can wear, and things you can do…..I had a security clearance, so I couldn’t go to certain places….,” she says.

Chris initially thought she would pursue a degree in homeland security. That made sense. After all, it’s what she had done for two decades. Still, she says, “I didn’t think it was the best fit for my family.”

Instead — with her husband’s encouragement — Chris enrolled at Lord Fairfax Community College with a different purpose: “I’m going to take a variety of classes to try and figure out what it is that I want to do.”

top_logo_new3-21What she discovered was an interest in history. “I fell in love with history of the Shenandoah Valley — the Civil War history,” she says. So when the opportunity arose to volunteer at nearby Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, Chris jumped at the chance.

Cedar Creek, one of the National Park Service’s newest historic parks, near Strasburg, Va., adjoins Belle Grove, the historic home of President James Madison’s sister, Nellie Madison Hite.

Her volunteer job became a full-time position, which she holds today, while at the same time managing a family and the life of a full-time student. No doubt, 20 years of military discipline allows her to juggle all of that.

By the time she earned her associates degree and enrolled at JMU, she knew she wanted to study history. But history isn’t her only pursuit. Chris is double majoring in history and psychology.

While studying history is for fun, she says, studying psychology has a deeper and more personal meaning for Chris. “You’re in a war zone seeing things the average person just wouldn’t understand., and then you come back to the real world and you’re expected to function like nothing happened. I want to be there for those people.”

NPS-logo-color.jpgShe hopes to someday be able to help veterans, some who suffer from PTSD, as well women in abusive relationships.

When she first came to JMU, she sought out other veterans.

“I am not a social person,” she admits, “and I knew that if I was going to be attending school at JMU I would need to have a group of people that I could [identify with] — someone to talk to. So I searched and found out there was a student veterans group, and I contacted them. That was not the norm…. but I knew, because of my personal situation, that I needed to have that in place before I would be able to fit in.”

She found that fit in the Student Veteran Association. This year, Chris is serving as president and through SVA, she wants to provide a place where veterans can meet and associate but also find resources for navigating higher education. The military imbues self-reliance; as a result, she says, “most veterans do not like to ask for help.” That’s where SVA can help. And for Chris, that means advocating for fellow veterans.

“They’re just certain things that we (veterans) need that the average person just doesn’t understand. For example, for the GI Bill we get our tuition paid for — and there are different kinds of GI Bills…. They’ll pay for your tuition, but every class you take has to be part of your degree plan, and they won’t pay for any classes that are outside of your degree plan.”

“Also we have a basic allowance for housing …… You get paid a certain amount for the number of credit hours you take. If you can’t get into your required classes then that amount of money is being reduced because you get paid per credit, right? There are a lot of veterans who are going to school after they get out of the military and their family is living on that. Many of the veterans have wives and children…. Some … are living off of that money and — I think it’s about $1300. So if you can imagine a family trying to live on $1300 while the veterans is going to school. It’s really important to us to be able to get into the classes that we need or we’re not going to get paid…”

That’s where SVA can help and at JMU, that need extends wide. Chris says that the male/female ratio is 64/36. Almost half — 46 percent are 31 years old or older; 36 percent are 25-30; and 18 percent are between 18 and 20.

According to Bill Wilson, director of the Madison Institute and a member of the Veterans Scholars Task Force, 210 veterans and service members are currently enrolled at JMU. In addition, 370 dependents are using post 9/11 GI benefits.

The Veterans Scholars Task Force is a group of JMU faculty working to make JMU veteran friendly. As SVA president, Chris is also a member of the task force.

As advocates for veterans, Chris says, “SVA is here to do support these veterans, to try to give them a place where they can come and get information, where they can have camaraderie with other people who are in the same path as they are, have the same kind of life experience.”

Chris has important goals for SVA that she hopes to launch during her one-year term. “My objective is to move us forward. We are in a position now where we are meeting and having the camaraderie. That’s very important, but I want to move us even further forward to where we are doing things to actually help the veterans here.”

She wants SVA to be a resource for JMU veterans and their families. “We want to be the people they come to and ask questions. We may not have the answers, but we will know who to steer them to, to answer those questions, or if they just need to have someone to sit and talk to — there’s a bond between military members and just knowing the person sitting next to you has been through or understands what you’ve been through is a huge comfort.”


Looking for veterans resources at JMU? Check out these links:




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