Willing Spirits 

Family Style recognizes five exceptional kids

Margaret: Wishes She Could Help Them All

Margaret Reynolds was in fourth grade when she first started volunteering at the St. James's Children's Center (of St. James's Episcopal Church), which offers preschool and afterschool education to area youth, including at-risk and special-needs children. That year, Margaret and her mom (Richmond art gallery owner Beverly Reynolds) visited the center regularly and read to the children—who won Margaret's heart right away. "They were so sweet," she recalls. "I just really got to love them."

Fueled by that love, Margaret and her mom brainstormed about how Margaret could help more. In 2000, as she was about to enter seventh grade at St. Catherine's Middle School, Margaret put her plans in motion: a Big Sister program that would partner St. Cat's students with St. James's children for one-on-one time doing crafts, reading, games and other enrichment activities.

Margaret met with Middle School Director Sue Baldwin that summer. She arrived "with written plans in hand and passionately described the project she wished to initiate," recalls Baldwin. Margaret presented her idea to her classmates when school started, inspiring 10 girls to join her. The program has expanded every year since then. Nine students in the ninth-grade class currently visit the center with Margaret, while 20 middle school girls are now involved. Even with 29 Big Sisters though, there aren't enough for all the St. James's kids to be partnered with someone.

Margaret has met with the same little girl for these past couple of years: Amaris, now 5 years old. "She's really lively," Margaret says, breaking into a huge grin. "And she's very loud!" Amaris and the other children rush out of their classrooms for hugs when the St. Cat's girls arrive every week. "You can tell how much it means to them," Margaret says. "It breaks your heart that you can't take them all."

Linwood: The Go-to Guy

As a museum coordinator and the youngest employee by far at Richmond's Black History Museum, 16-year-old Linwood Johnson does it all: gives tours, mans the gift shop, takes care of office work. "I do everything here," he says, "… any loose ends that need to be tied up, let's just say that."

Linwood began volunteering at the museum for school credit at Huguenot High School, where he's a junior. And then? With his natural passion and aptitude for history, Linwood fell for Jackson Ward in a big way. He's inspired by the area's history as the birthplace of black capitalism. "People came here and built something out of nothing," he says. "The first black bank started here. … I just got hooked here." The museum knew a good thing when they saw it: Linwood was knowledgeable, mature and eager. They offered him a job, and he's now part of the staff.

Linwood uses his knowledge and love of the area to educate the people on his tours. "You just want to open the eyes of your peers who don't know about black history," he says, "… give them something they can take with them." He receives an education, as well, meeting visitors from England, Norway, Japan, Africa and other far-off places. "Jackson Ward is a gateway to the rest of the world," he says.

Christina Newton, a co-worker at the museum, sings his praises: "He's great with the public," she says. "He knows so much about the local history. … He could be out hanging with his friends. But he decides to take the responsibility of working. … I'm sure he'll succeed in whatever he decides to do."

Linwood isn't only interested in the past. He's also begun to work as a street promoter for new recording artists, hoping to search out future big talents. He plans to go to college (a historically black college is his goal) and major in public relations. "After I accomplish something, I'm not just gonna stand on one platform," he says. "I'm gonna do everything I can."

Allie: Celebrating Health

When Allie Stough was 8, she took part in her first Relay for Life, the American Cancer Society (ACS) event designed to celebrate cancer survivorship and raise money for the organization's research and programs. Not many 8-year-olds get involved with the event to the degree that Allie did. But then, not many 8-year-olds have battled cancer. Allie did — at age 7, when she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.

Now 14 and a seven-year survivor, Allie volunteers with ACS and continues to work diligently with the relay. Last year, she served on a committee for the relay and helped raise $5,596.00. This past September, Allie represented the 4th Congressional District as a community ambassador for ACS at Celebration on the Hill in Washington, D.C., where she celebrated cancer survivorship and advocated for responsible cancer policies and laws.

Why does she do it? "Because I had a brain tumor, and because two grandpas and a great aunt died of cancer," she says, and this is a direct and satisfying way for her to help others.

Allie's surgery seven years ago left her with some short-term memory problems. She works around that difficulty, studying hard and writing herself notes to stay on top of things. Her efforts are reflected in her academic success: Last school year, she was inducted into the Junior National Honor Society.

Allie's mom, Nancy, has witnessed her daughter's struggles and triumphs every step of the way. "She has truly taken the lemons in her life and turned them into lemonade," she says.

Allie plans to continue her volunteer efforts and hopes one day for a career in some sort of social work. She sums it all up this way: "It makes me feel great to help people."

Max: Not Just Playing Around

Max Crodick, 15, has been playing the cello and studying music composition for just two years. But he's heard melodies in his mind for much longer. "I've always heard music in my head. I could hear in my head what I wanted a symphony to sound like," he says, as matter-of-factly as you might discuss the weather.

Max attended Our Lady of Lourdes until eighth grade. Up to that point, he mostly relied on recorder, hand bells and chorus to relieve his musical itch. "I used to be a really singing type of person," he says. He switched to public school beginning in ninth grade and found that his new school (Lee Davis High School) had a strings program. That's when he took up the cello.

Given how much of his life is now devoted to the instrument, he must be an impressively proficient player — in spite of his very short history with the cello. "That's what everybody keeps telling me," he says. "But I can't get over how I'm not as good as so many people I've heard so far."

To reach the level to which he aspires, Max spends 30 to 40 hours a week playing music. "I'm a little obsessive with practicing," he allows. He also continues to study composition and has composed for strings alone and for full orchestra.

Janel Gagnon, program manager of the Young Performers program at the Richmond Symphony, calls Max remarkable. "He is extremely ambitious and dedicated where music is concerned," Gagnon says. "You talk about people having a passion … Max lives his passion. He lives, breathes and eats music."

Kathleen: Crafting a Way to Help

Twelve-year-old Kathleen Atkinson is going into her fourth year working with children as a shelter volunteer for ESI (Emergency Shelter Incorported) Connections. Some people might be tired of it by now. Not Kathleen.

"I really like it because it's fun," she says simply. "And you know you're helping in some way, so it's kind of a good feeling." Kathleen and her mom typically visit the shelter weekly, in the early evening. They work only with the children, which frees the moms there to attend parenting or substance abuse classes.

Each visit consists of three components: a craft, a game and a snack. Kathleen is enthusiastic as she reels off the list of things she's taught the children to make: "magic muck" (solid when you hold it; oozes when you let go), God's eyes, pictures frames, seasonal decorations and more.

Kathleen initiated this project at the age of 9, when she realized that she wanted to help the homeless. "I would see homeless people pushing shopping carts," she recalls. "It made me sad. I wanted to help somehow." She started to look for an opportunity, even adding the idea to her prayer requests. A few weeks later, her mom noticed something in the newspaper about ESI Connections, a downtown shelter for women and children. The shelter needed volunteers; Kathleen and her mom needed a place to volunteer. It was a perfect fit.

Melissa Murchie, child services coordinator at the center, is grateful that Kathleen came her way. "She's amazing!" Murchie says. "She's just really a leader, she really takes charge. She plans and organizes all the activities she and her mom bring; she initiates a lot of it." Furthermore, says Murchie, "her love for the kids is just amazing. … She's a good teacher and leader with them. The kids just love her."

Kathleen is happy to be doing something tangible and plans to continue indefinitely. "It's just something that is kind of part of my life now," she says. FS



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