The incredible volunteers behind our Virtual Learning Center

Feb 12, 2021|Written By: Jessie Fittro

COVID-19 created a serious setting for fall programming discussions at Abundant Life. Loss, and the fear of loss, had taken on new forms with an unprecedented speed for many around the world and systems were responding with shifting policies, increasing restrictions, and specialized committees. Charlottesville City Schools decided on an all-online start to the school year, leaving many families wondering how they were going to navigate some very assumptive requirements for their children’s education. Abundant Life’s Elementary Programming Coordinator, Angel Feero, resolved to establish a virtual learning center to safely meet the in-person needs that city schools determined they could not.

Creating a Learning Center

learning center incredible volunteers
Learning Center students board the Abundant Life bus for a ride home from Christ Church

There was a special sharpness to this decision from the start. Abundant Life had established programs and a network of resources; however, these had never been put into action quite like this before. We had to make some assumptions of our own. Yet as Abundant Life scrambled to plan the logistics necessary for organizing a more intensive program, we were met by vibrant generosity and our community expanded. Not only did we find ourselves the recipients of an appropriate space as a home for our classrooms, but we saw a multitude of individuals offer of themselves and their time to be with us in this endeavor. Everyone that rose to be a part of this cooperative effort illustrated and inspired striking dedication and a hope-full resolution.

During their regular shifts, volunteers helped students as they embarked on the unfamiliar requirements of cyber-school while also reinforcing the relatively new social distancing and sanitation habits that we were all developing, including mask-wearing and consistent hand washing. We learned together how to navigate the intricacies of virtual lessons in a shared space.

The hard work and intense collaboration daily exhibited by those who showed up for us and our brilliant kids was often breathtaking. Each person demonstrated a kind of radiancy that cannot come from ordinary circumstances. We had volunteers at higher risk due to age, underlying health conditions, or even pregnancy. We had volunteers who organized delightfully intricate crafts. Some made donations to enlarge toy collections, or took on additional cleanup duties without being asked. Many brought skills and specialties that we could not have done without. Three Learning Center volunteers in particular displayed especially faithful actions that encouraged the spirits of those around them on a daily basis.

Meet Phyllis James

learning center incredible volunteers
Volunteer Penny Krell works with a student at the Learning Center

Upon arrival at programming, the first smile that volunteers, staff, and children will see invariably belongs to Phyllis. Sure, the lower half of her face is covered by a mask, but there’s no mistaking that grin. She’s singing and dancing her smiles into the morning and more often than not she’s got you smiling, too. No matter the weather, in the face of the cold or the damp or even a steady downpour, she’s there to greet you with hand sanitizer, a sticker, and a warm “hello.”

Always stylish, she’s beautifully dressed. She’ll sometimes have her hair covered to protect it for her work meetings after her shift ends, too, because Phyllis works full time in addition to the hour or so of volunteering that she does every day. She’s a generous woman. When temperatures dropped and I started showing up to sit in the frigid air with my hair wet, she brought me her hairdryer. One morning she arrived with several brand new cloth masks to give to children who didn’t have them. I witnessed a kindergartner so in love with her pink whiskered one that she took extra care with it all day long and into the weeks ahead. Her older sister later told me with pride that the one that she got was made to look like an elephant. Phyllis’s gifts, masterful in their simple consideration, were part of her kind and care-full nature.

Meet Diane Myers

I was immediately impressed by Diane’s enthusiasm for and knowledge about education. From our first day together, she showed up prepared with armfuls of crafts and worksheets and carefully put together poster boards. She came with songs, too. We celebrated each person’s presence in the classroom every morning. She taught us to sing the days of the week. We even sang with her as we waited to wash our hands or if we needed to use our voices and wave our arms to get the wiggles out. Diane was ablaze with new ideas and suggestions, but she also made a point to look each person in the eyes — whether they were a child, a staff person, another volunteer — and ask them about themselves. She had thoughtful questions that showed that she really cared to know you. She listened and smiled kindly and let you know that she appreciated you for who you are.

I’ll never forget when I had the privilege of reading some comments she put together for the parents of our kindergarten students. About one of them she wrote: “He loves to laugh and is especially interested in nature. I can always count on him to point out a special insect or plant on our walks to and from the playground.” About another she said: “He is willing to participate…, to help other students and me as well. I am delighted to say that he is a leader in our group.” Diane brought more than just skill that was a product of books and experience to our programming this fall. She brought a skill of the heart.

Meet Melville Krebs

learning center incredible volunteers
Volunteer Melville Krebs works with a student at the Learning Center

I think back fondly to watching Melville lead the first and second graders out to the playground each morning with a skip in her step and a lightness like none I’ve ever seen. She seemed always to be on the move, but there was no franticness about her. She’s quietly confident in what she knows and she does what needs to be done in an inconspicuous manner. She expects no thanks, gifts, or parade. Her commitment is remarkable. She is remarkable.

We mostly crossed paths in the hallways, or as we collaborated in small ways between the younger grade classrooms. I watched as she made the most of some really challenging days and didn’t ever stop trying to improve on, while also making the best of, the situation at hand. Melville didn’t plan to volunteer the amount of time that she did this fall. She put in countless behind-the-scenes hours and I grew quite accustomed to hearing her say, “I’ll be back later to clean that up!” Or, “I’m going to be here again this afternoon to plan that activity.” What struck me the most was that she didn’t just show up herself. She brought friends, family, and her church into the effort. It became clear that this isn’t just the way that Melville serves with Abundant Life. Her commitments shape her community and Melville is committed.

Thank you, volunteers!

A special thanks to all those who volunteered at our elementary learning center this past fall: Penny Krell, Sarah Miller, Antonette Hash, Courtenay Evans, Amanda McMillen, Ellen Foster, Ellie McLean, Emily Luck, Jane Duffey, Judi Ely, Ken Wilson, Kim Anderson, Laura Merricks, Lora Kelley, Rie Harris, Ashley Gitchell, Sarah Webber, Micah Webber, Kate Martin, Megan Bleakley, Jim Bleakley, Jordyn Hursh, Maria Phillips, Beth Elder, Laurie Duxbury, Andrea Smith, Katheryn Sublette, Carolyn Hawkes, Tiffany Nguyen, Lynn Feero, Meg Worley, Erin Tracey, Camden Baucom, Jennifer Dimeo, Andrea Brown, Lizzy Girvan, Elexus Mays. We are so grateful to have you as part of our team and family!

Jessie Fittro is our Volunteer Coordinator and an Abundant Life Fellow. We are currently accepting applications for the 2021-2022 Fellows Class. Visit our Fellows page to learn more about the Fellows program and/or apply.

Lead picture credit: Lauren Stonestreet. From left: Melville Krebs, Angel Feero, Diane Myers, Jessie Fittro, Phyllis James


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