by Cindy McMahon
“I have traveled widely in Concord,” Henry David Thoreau wrote. Maybe he hadn’t crossed the ocean, but Thoreau had seen a lot of life right there in the little Massachusetts town where he was born. A group of our Reynolds Middle School eighth graders had a similar experience at the end of April.
While one group of students traveled to Charleston for the annual eighth grade trip, teachers from Reynolds Middle made sure that another group of soon-to-be middle school graduates had two days of adventures right here in Asheville. It was a great mix of having fun, experiencing new things, and contributing to the community.
Day One of their adventures was largely outdoors: they worked with RiverLink to attack invasive species at Azalea Park, learning about the evils of kudzu and multiflora rose along the way. They also worked on outdoor beautification projects on their own campus. Finally they prepared for Day Two by putting together care packages of notebooks, pens, and skin care products to be delivered the next day (many thanks to Forest Dermatology, Biltmore Dermatology, Wright Carpet, the ACRMS PTO and caring school families for donating these items).
I joined the group on their second day, as they piled out of activity buses at the ABCCM Veterans Restoration Quarters on Tunnel Road in Oteen. Like the students, I had never visited this facility, and the experience was eye-opening for me as well as for the kids.
First, there are the grounds and facility. I was struck by the surprisingly lovely setting, as the well-maintained lawn slopes down to the gently flowing Swannanoa River behind the building. Inside, we were given a tour of the public areas, including the second largest commercial kitchen in Buncombe County (Mission Health has the largest). We met Chef Eric Cox, who leads the partnership program with AB Tech where veterans can learn the culinary trade. I was impressed to learn that they have a 97% success rate for their graduates getting hired after the program.
And did you know that when this building was a motel back in the 1970’s, it was where Elvis Presley used to stay when he came to Asheville? Fascinating.
After delivering the care packages they had prepared, the eighth graders got to hear from Joey, one of the 246 veterans who benefit from this facility. Joey didn’t hold back, telling the group about his abusive father, his time in the military, his successful early career as a firefighter, and then his steep decline into drug use and homelessness. The kids got to ask Joey questions (“How much can you bench press?”) and then ask questions about the Restoration Quarters as a whole (“Can women stay here?”).
The power of the experience wasn’t lost on the kids, even though they got to go have fun after the visit. At the bowling alley afterward, Isaiah Chambers said, “It was amazing to get their perspective of what they went through first-hand. I really connected with what they were saying and it really meant a lot to me.”
Other students recognized the benefit to ourselves when we help others. Jazmin Pellegatti said, “You feel like you’re actually helping to build a better community by helping out.” And Katie Rojas agreed: “It felt good knowing what we were doing was helping someone.”
Teacher Rheta West gained a new perspective on education itself: “I have realized that in education we have spent so much time teaching our children to take a test that we have forgotten to teach them compassion, empathy, and gratitude. Thanks to RiverLink and Veterans Restoration Quarters I feel we had a chance to teach our kids what actually matters over these past two days.” The learning continues!
Cindy McMahon is the Reynolds District Representative, Buncombe County School Board. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.