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



Leaves of change

Student photography intern Jeffrey Thelin (’15) captures true JMU hues in fallen leaves on campus

Have you ever noticed that the only time we pay attention to the weather is when it is changing?  Think about it. We grab umbrellas when it starts raining. We shed coats in the spring. In the fall, we wait for the beautiful autumn hues to emerge so we can drive around and relish the colors. We brace for the tease of cold winter winds.

As the leaves turn this year, I’m reminded that not all trees are the same in color or process. In fact, how different trees change is a good metaphor for how many ways we all respond to change.

Some trees, like sourwoods with their flame red leaves, change early as if they are eager to shed summer and prepare for winter. Some of us are like that, always eager to move on to the next event, the next opportunity. These kinds of individuals are not only comfortable with change, they welcome it. They can be impatient with the status quo.

Red fall leaves scattered on Bluestone

Fall leaves on Bluestone (Photo by Jeffrey Thelin (’15))

Others, like the gingkos that line up along Bluestone Drive, are supremely efficient in the face of change. When cold weather comes, overnight gingko trees turn a brilliant monochromatic yellow. A few days or weeks later, depending on night temperatures, they drop their leaves en masse. Efficient. For these kinds of people, change is a mechanism to employ. They are in lock step with it.

And then there are the pin oaks that hold onto their leaves often through the winter — much to the dismay of  homeowners who like to get their leaves raked and their yards tucked away early for winter. Often pin oaks don’t let go of their leaves until new spring growth pushes them out.

JMU's statue of James Madison standing in front of autumn-colored tree

Little Jemmy watches the campus change color (Photo by Jeffrey Thelin)

For some people, like the pin oaks, change is embraced gradually or even reluctantly. Change can feel threatening, even difficult, and sometimes change is difficult. Sometimes a sense of loss with change is warranted. And like pin oaks, holding on a little longer feels right.

Then there are the sugar maples. When they change every fall, their color is bright, vivid, dramatic — almost celebratory. That’s illustrative of the best kind of change, the kind that comes when lives are changed for the better. It’s the kind of reaction to change that appears when lives are improved or saved or enhanced.

What is universal is the sense that change is as inevitable as the changing seasons; how we handle it or use it or exploit it makes all the difference.  And the variety with which we produce and embrace change can be as beautiful as the Shenandoah Valley in autumn.

Uncle Jemmy’s cradle of change

In Eastern Virginia, sitting majestically along the banks of the Rappahannock River, is a beautiful old home that will open later this year as a bed and breakfast — Belle Grove Plantation Bed and Breakfast. (pictured below)

When I stumbled across it recently, I was puzzled. I’ve visited Belle Grove — but this house was not the Belle Grove near Middletown, Va., in the Northern Shenandoah Valley that  is a national historic landmark, a destination for history lovers and the home of President James Madison’s sister, Nelly Conway Madison Hite.

So I dug a little deeper.

It turns out, Virginia has two Belle Groves, one in the east and one in the west, and both have ties to the fourth United States president.

The river-seated Belle Grove Plantation to the east is the place where James Madison was born. (The original house of his birth no longer stands.) The future president’s mother, Eleanor “Nelly” Conway Madison was living in Mount Pleasant, Va., with her husband of a year as the birth of their first child neared. Anticipating the event, Nelly traveled to her mother’s home, Belle Grove, in Port Conway. At midnight on March 16, 1751, James Madison Jr. was born.

The Shenandoah Valley’s Belle Grove

The owners of the eastern Belle Grove, an intrepid couple interested in preserving the beautiful old house and its history, have posted much about its heritage on their blog.

The Valley’s Belle Grove was built by Major Isaac Hite and his wife Nelly Madison Hite, the sister of President James Madison. According to one website, this valley plantation was named as a remembrance of the earlier, eastern plantation where Nelly and “Jemmy’s” mother grew up.

The aftermath of July Fourth is a good time to reflect on the impact of Mr. Madison and the legacy of the two Belle Groves, one that cradled a future president and another he likely visited.

Often overlooked and sometimes underestimated, James Madison lived “Be the Change.” His life defined what it means to be involved, to have feet on the ground, to be in the game, to make a difference — all those cliches we use to describe what it takes to create change. If there is a better exemplar for a university to follow, I’m not sure who it is. James Madison set a high standard for change.

And there’s one more historical twist that might will surprise you. It turns out that Michelle Hite (’88), the editor of JMU’s award-winning Madison magazine, is a descendant of the Hite family, the original builders of Shenandoah Valley’s Belle Grove Plantation. The Madisons married into her family, she’ll tell you with a laugh. I’ll leave it to the genealogists to figure out the exact connection, but somewhere up in Michelle’s family tree there’s an “Uncle Jemmy” every Duke can claim.

He’s our Uncle Jemmy.

To learn more about Virginia’s two Belle Groves, click the embedded links above.

And to read more about President James Madison, check out Liberty and Learning: The Essential James Madison by JMU alumnus and Be the Changer, Phil Bigler (’74, ’75M) and Annie Lorsbach (’08M).

The soundtrack of life

The Coat of Arms of Kappa Kappa Psi

Kappa Kappa Psi (Image via Wikipedia)

Music, I think, is the soundtrack of life. Only the most curmudgeonly of people would say they have not been changed or moved by music sometime in their lives. JMU musicians — faculty, students and alumni — have adopted that spirit and spread their talents all over the Shenandoah Valley.

One need only look at the impact of people like Be the Changer Marlon Foster (’82, ’95M) and J.R. Snow (’99), both directors of bands for Harrisonburg city schools, and Rob Nash (’96), director of bands for Rockingham County’s Turner Ashby High School, to understand that nothing is cloistered or haughty about music at JMU. Quite the opposite is true. Music is a passion shared widely and generously. Every year local students are inspired by the Marching Royal Dukes. Every year they learn from available private lessons. They benefit from myriad opportunities that teach and enrich. In a very real way, music spills out of JMU, drenching the valley in every genre and with every instrument — classical to  jazz, bands to ensembles, symphonies to soloists. In local schools, the influence of JMU musicians is significant.

Yesterday, we received an update from one of those talents, Be the Changer Avery Daugherty (’07, ’09M). Avery has just accepted a job as town manager of Grottoes, Va., a small town tucked right up against the mountains east of Harrisonburg. While Avery was a student at JMU, he made a commitment to enrich the lives of valley students by initiating a music scholarship.

Avery writes,”It is my goal to reach out in every way that I can to continue to promote musical talent throughout the Valley and am ecstatic to be moving back to the area full time.”

“I moved back to Harrisonburg a few months after graduation to pursue volunteer opportunities with the nearby town of Bridgewater. During this time, I actively served as alumnus to the JMU chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi, a music fraternity. I worked closely with their executive board promoting the Aspiring Musicians Scholarship to professors and students as well as other musical organizations on campus. The JMU chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi unanimously decided to adopt the AMS and oversee fund raising and distribution of funds. The fraternity decided to annually award deserving recipients in the Shenandoah Valley.”

Good news about Avery — and good news for music students in the Shenandoah Valley. If music is wealth, we in the valley are extraordinarily blessed by JMU.

To learn more about Kappa Kappa Psi, check out their website: http://orgs.jmu.edu/kappakappapsi/ourstory/ourstory.html

To read Avery’s Be the Change profile, visit: http://www.jmu.edu/bethechange/people/daugherty.shtml

And to learn more about JMU School of Music, visit: http://www.jmu.edu/music/index.html

A cross-country college choice

Deciding on what college to attend is a monumental decision for many high school seniors. For many it is the biggest decision they have yet had to make, and it represents a significant change in their lives. Right now, as we approach the time when letters and emails of acceptance go out, I wondered what would prompt a student to pick a school all the way across the country — and what the experience would be like. Conveniently, one JMU student who made that kind of choice is an intern in our Be the Change office this semester. Brian Rather (’12) is an English major from Phoenix, Arizona. Here’s what Brian had to say about choosing Madison …..

Changing Scenery

by Brian Rather (’12)

My decision to come to James Madison University was based on spontaneity and an urge to experience a change of scenery. I loved growing up in Arizona. I had supportive parents and a great group of friends, but my aspiration to experience life elsewhere superseded all of the wonderful components I treasured in Arizona. I can vividly remember looking at four computer boxes full of my belongings as they disappeared into the mailroom. Eighteen years of my life, shipped across the country.

The first semester of my freshman year was one of the biggest turning points in my life. I was living on my own in uncharted territories for the first time. Everything was new to me. I had moved from a metropolis scorched by the desert sun to rolling hills spotted with rural towns, so I wasn’t going to involve myself in the same types of things. Where I saw opportunities to participate in the activities I enjoyed in Arizona, I turned the other way. I took French instead of German. I played Frisbee instead of lacrosse. I changed my major from business to writing. I would have even chosen Jess’ Quick Lunch over my favorite southwestern food, a burrito. I viewed Virginians as foreigners. At first their kindness and hospitality came across as fake. It was as if I were living in a community of actors. In fact, I believed that anyone around this area who showed Southern hospitality had alternative motives and was out to get me.

Toward the middle of my second semester, though, I became acquainted with the East Coast lifestyle and had established myself in a great community. I no longer felt among foreigners and embraced the rural Virginian lifestyle. I decided to become a volunteer leader for an organization called Young Life. I now had a purpose and a community that supported it. Harrisonburg became my home.

Of course there were inconveniences that accompanied living so far away from Arizona. The hardest part has been a lack of contact with my parents. I remember going on walks when all of my friends went home for the weekend. I’d watch the cars pass on Interstate 81 feeling stuck and alone. My friends were always there to help my situation by offering to have me for Thanksgiving, or inviting me to go out to lunch with their parents. I was truly thankful for their generosity, but it’s not the same when you’re with another family.

My decision to go to college across the country may have seemed crazy to most, but it has turned out to be great. From growing up in the desert of Arizona, to now residing in the rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley, I have been opened up to so many new experiences that I otherwise wouldn’t have. The first few times I boarded the plane to Virginia I felt like Tom Sawyer taking off into the unknown. Now I feel as though I’m going home.

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