Seeds of change: Third-graders highlight community leaders

Julian Stahelin, a third-grader at Free Union Country School, with Alex Zan, one of the Charlottesville 12 who integrated city schools in 1959. Photo: Eze Amos Julian Stahelin, a third-grader at Free Union Country School, with Alex Zan, one of the Charlottesville 12 who integrated city schools in 1959. Photo: Eze Amos

Think back to third grade. You might remember learning multiplication tables, memorizing vocabulary words, or a brief, possibly confusing poetry unit.

The third graders of Free Union Country School might remember something a little different-—sitting down for a conversation with a community leader.

Blair Amberly, the Free Union third grade teacher, matched all 14 of his students with local “change makers” –from Alex Zan, one of the Charlottesville 12 who integrated city schools in 1959, to Cutter Huston, a Western Albemarle high schooler who created a local chapter of The Laundry Project, to help low-income families wash clothes for free.

The students interviewed their change makers in February, and worked on a project in their honor all semester long.

“I wanted there to be a connection between the school community and the larger Charlottesville community,” Amberly says. He asked students to contact their subjects (with their parents’ help) and set up a time and a place of their choosing to meet. “A lot of times [that’s] at the person’s work, or at a coffee shop they like to go to, or the studio where they make art, so that the student from my classroom is leaving their normal bubble of their community and going into this other person’s world,” he says.

Ruthie Wallenborn, who interviewed photographer (and frequent C-VILLE contributor) Eze Amos. Photo by Eze.

At CitySpace on Friday, June 7th, Free Union’s last day of school, each student displayed a portrait, short biography, poem, and quote from their interview. Amidst running students and the growing hum of conversation, Ingrid Ramos, a counselor for the Women’s Initiative and director of the Bienestar and Resilience programs, talked about working with third-grader Hannah Warrington.

“You don’t have to be a hero,” she says of being a change-maker. “You just have to be somebody in tune with your community, seeing what is happening, and where you want to contribute.”

Ramos previously worked as an accountant, but says she realized she found joy in interacting with people, and helping them work through their problems.

In “Cherry Tree,” her poem for Ramos, Warrington wrote: “She listens to people & helps them with her heart. In some way it brings a sense of honesty, transparency, and dealing with precious things as a human being.”

The exhibit will be up until June 30, and Amberly says he hopes the project, which he began last year, will continue each year, evolving with each unique set of students and change makers.