Student’s drive makes a difference

The fifth-grade Norfolk class shows off the the books they chose after Rachel Gall solicited donations.

Rappahannock County High School graduates often leave their close-knit environs to make their mark in the world. Many times, reports of their successes do not filter back. But some pause to let the folks back home know how they’re doing.

Rachel Gall, RCHS class of 2005, graduated from Christopher Newport University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in political science (international relations.) She is now a graduate student in Regent University’s education program. Part of her spring requirements involved observing classroom instruction. Gall’s experience as an observer led her to become a participant who made a difference.

At an inner city public school in Norfolk, Gall began her field observations. She chose a fifth-grade classroom that receives Title I funding because family and/or financial circumstances put its students at risk of not graduating.

“About one month into it, I realized that these kids are still at a second- and third-grade reading level,” Gall said. “That is so disturbing! I remember, in my own childhood, being so excited about summer because it meant my sister Hannah and I would get our big canvas book bags and our Rappahannock County library cards. Mom taught us to love reading. It breaks my heart to see kids not only struggle with reading but struggle to even enjoy it.”

After witnessing the weaknesses, Gall responded to her university’s search for volunteer reading tutors. “I want to fill my time more with stuff other than church, school and work. I take a lot out of life and I wanted to put some back, so I went to the school and spoke to the reading specialist. She explained that the kids couldn’t take books home because often students didn’t return books, and the school couldn’t afford to keep replacing books.”

This difficulty propelled Gall to act. “I called mom [RCHS science teacher Beth Gall], and we brainstormed.” The idea that emerged was to start a local book drive. Beth Gall sent out emails to her colleagues at RCPS, and the responses poured in. Teachers from Rappahannock and beyond donated over a thousand books.

“My little Civic was weighed down with books for kindergarten through fourth grade. The reading specialist set up tables in the reading room after SOLs and we brought in every class.” Students received a decorated canvas bag and were able to choose two books to keep. There were probably 100 books left over for the school to keep as rewards to strengthen the kids’ reading throughout the upcoming school year.”

In the midst of the experience, Gall found memorable snapshot moments. “About 10 kids asked, ‘Really . . . forever? We get to keep our books forever?’ I told them: under two conditions. They had to promise to practice their reading, even if there were big words, and they had to promise to take care of the books.”

2005 RCHS graduate Rachel Gall

The students were thrilled at the opportunity to shop for books. One girl gave Gall cause to laugh: “She had about 700 books in front of her, and just like she was at Barnes and Noble, she asked me, ‘What do you have in unicorns?’ I don’t have anything in unicorns, but I have some with princesses. ‘Oh, I love princesses,’ she said.

“It was crazy how easy it was to do this,” Gall said. “I’m really blessed, and I feel like when God gives us an opportunity to love, we are responsible. I’m so grateful when He gives me a chance to share blessings. A lot of people made this happen and made a difference in the lives of those kids.”

A single, spontaneous brainstorm brought a successful plan to fruition. It also supplied Gall the anecdotal evidence she needed to describe her home county. “The closeness of Rapp is under-celebrated. When someone’s in need, the village comes to aid. It is also fantastic to see how many of my classmates are going into professions that aim to change the world. So much of ourselves is Rappahannock: our continued close-knit relationships with our teachers and our families. It’s a patchwork of people, and I love it.”