Supporting a cause ‘worth fighting for’
When Pendle Whisnant used to drive past the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls (VHBG) entrance on Broad Street, she often wondered what went on inside those entrance gates.
As Whisnant was to find out, not that much was happening – other than a few dozen lives being changed.
Established in 1846, the non-profit VHBG has served since then as a home for more than 20,000 at-risk youth, with significant challenges ranging from mental illness and abandonment to abuse and neglect.
Approximately 50 teen-agers at a time live on the campus, guided by a married couple residing in each of the six group homes. With the help of those surrogate parents, the youth experience what is for some the first healthy home environment or stability they have ever known.
VHBG also serves as an alternative school for teens who have not succeeded through the traditional educational system. About 60 children, including some from the home, attend John G. Wood School on the campus; others attend J.R. Tucker High School.
It was at John G. Wood School that Whisnant – the mother of two teens, including an autistic son – found her home as well.
"I have tutored for years," she says, "and thought it might be a good fit for me and my background."
Growing up without a father, and with a mother widowed with three children under the age of five, Whisnant says she feels "a special affinity" for residents who have lost parents or been permanently or temporarily removed from their homes. Her mother, she says, also led by example in finding ways to keep her children "ever mindful of the needs of others."
In addition to tutoring in math at the school, Whisnant helps students prepare for standardized tests, and volunteers in the online learning class tutoring other subjects.
"I help students with everything from Spanish to science," Whisnant says. "Most of what I do is to encourage them and make sure they really try. I also try to identify their strengths and learning styles so we can build on them."
On Feb. 6, at an awards event held to recognize key members in the VHBG community, Whisnant was honored as the organization's Volunteer of the Year. But much as Whisnant appreciated the honor, she says she finds the everyday moments and rewards just as sweet. She has seen students move from reluctance to delight at the chance to work with her – even to the point that they kiddingly tell their classmates that Whisnant is there only for them.
"[My reward] is the light in their eyes when they see me at the door," she says, "and the moment that I show them they are capable of doing something that they just finished telling me they didn't know how to do."
Another supporter recognized at the Feb. 6 award ceremony was Michael Harlow, director and founder of Endorphin Fitness, who was named VHBG Partner of the Year. Harlow and his staff organized a youth triathlon event that raised $6,500 for the organization last year, and they plan to hold the benefit event again – as well as lead a fitness day for the VHBG community every quarter.
Harlow says that after founding Endorphin Fitness, he searched for many years for an organization for his business to get behind.
"Nothing really pulled on my heart," he says, "until I learned about the VHBG."
Immediately drawn to the VHBG mission and to the youth at the home, Harlow and his staff set up a program that used energy bar wrappers to produce recycled items, which were sold to benefit VHBG.
To raise additional funds and build community awareness, the staff organized a youth triathlon, preceded by a one-week youth triathlon camp with both VHBG residents and community members participating.
Held in August on the VHBG campus, the 2012 triathlon attracted 70 children; Harlow expects at least 100 this year, and hopes for more memories like the one he cherishes of two VHBG residents crossing the triathlon finish line.
"At the beginning of camp, both had doubts on whether they could complete the race," Harlow says, "so it was a great celebration to see them accomplish their goal."
He and his staff have developed a close attachment to the youth at VHBG, Harlow says.
"We have a heart for kids who are put in tough situations [through] no fault of their own," he says. "They are all good kids who can accomplish greatness if given the means to do so. They need positive influences in their lives . . . and catalysts to make change.
"These kids are worth fighting for."
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