Angel Make Difference in Robbins
Even if my friend Claire Ruggles hadn't invited me up to Robbins Thursday afternoon, I would have been happy to make the drive.
Robbins is one of my favorite places to go, a proud old mill town that reminds me of my boyhood in the Carolinas. Many of my relatives and family's best friends lived in small, rural junctions towns just like it - each in its own way trying to keep pace with time and not be forgotten by it.
During the two decades I called Maine home, locals used to say there were "two Maines." One was the Maine of picture-book rocky coasts, lobster boats working the harbor and beautiful homes overlooking the sea. Tourists adored that Maine.
Another rarely seen Maine, however, consisted of formerly handsome old towns that fell on hard times when the shoe factory or paper mill closed down, taking jobs and prosperity to some foreign country. Visitors were always a bit shocked to discover the poverty and social need of this largely invisible Maine.
Here in Moore County, we're also a tale of two distinct places. The beautiful southern half, where most of us reside, is justly world-famous for its golf courses and horse farms. Tucked into the beautiful forests of northern Moore County, on the edge of the rolling Piedmont, the town of Robbins and its surrounding rural hamlets, on the other hand, might strike the casual visitor passing though on the Pottery Highway as a place bypassed by time.
When the mill closed down and the exodus began 20 or so years back, the Belk department store vanished and even the town's two popular movie theaters eventually closed up. People left town. Fine old houses suddenly sat empty, and surrounding neighborhoods declined.
Because nature abhors a -vacuum, and the affluent lifestyle needs reliable cheap labor, down-at-the-heels Robbins eventually became home to a lot of the Hispanic families that clean the pools, tend the yards and groom the golf courses of the southern half of the county. Most of these families - which today constitute nearly half of the town's -population - live near or below the national poverty level.
Look closer at Robbins these days, however, and you'll see something of a social renaissance beginning to take root here.
Principal Heather Seawell's Robbins Elementary School has six new classrooms and a sparkling new entrance and administrative offices. St Joseph of the Pines will soon cut the ribbon on a beautiful new housing facility for low-income seniors. There are more people on Main Street, new shops and fresh faces visible, an energy of revival you can feel coming from folks who are determined to make their little corner of the county prosper again.
Angels like Claire Ruggles are helping them do it.
In a former and very different kind of life, Claire, the daughter of Rosie and John Ruggles, of Pinehurst, was a successful senior-level accountant in Manhattan for Price Waterhouse, the Big Eight accounting colossus. After that, she served as an associate director for the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program, helping design and implement an innovative program that brought gifted writers into public schools, making a huge difference in the lives of young folks who needed just a hand to start climbing the ladder of success.
Some years ago, Claire came to visit her folks in Pinehurst and drove up to find a certain James Baldwin book at the Robbins Public Library. She was struck by the poverty and need she saw all over town.
"It was a real eye-opening experience for me," she remembers. "The differences between the southern and northern halves of this county were so dramatic, literally worlds away from each other, it made me stop and think about things we take for granted. A lot of my preconceived notions about life in America were -challenged. I always assumed, for example, that people always have the same aspirations for their children, regardless of where they come from or choose to live. But what if - owing to language and cultural barriers - the people who need the most help have no basis for understanding what those aspirations and opportunity could be?"
Noticing a classified ad in The Pilot seeking a director for the new Northern Moore Family Resource Center (NMFRC), Claire decided to apply, got the job and moved to Moore County from Texas. In January 2006, she reported to work as the executive director of NMFRC, earning a pittance of what she made in her former career stops but hoping to make a real difference in the lives of local children and their parents.
The center's stated mission is to improve the lives of all Northern Moore residents by assisting families and children in need, providing the kind of fundamental support that helps them succeed academically and socially.
Consider what Claire and others like her are up against: More than 90 percent of the children who attend Robbins Elementary School are living in poverty, a startling statistic when you -realize they're growing up -invisibly just a few miles through the -longleaf pines from some of the most affluent and philanthropic communities in North Carolina.
Less than 50 percent of Robbins students read at grade level. Research has shown that if children fail to read at grade level by third grade, as a rule, the risk of dropping out before high school graduation is substantially heightened, nearly doubled in some cases. Inevitably, a high percentage of these dropouts will eventually be dependent on -public tax dollars in some form or another, either through social welfare programs or the cost of incarceration.
'Find a Way'
Last year, through the dedication of the fantastic teachers, counselors and administrators at Robbins Elementary, however, the school's 600 or so students showed the most improvement and greatest academic growth of any school in the county. Just this week, their principal, Heather Seawell, was named the county's Principal of the Year.
One reason for this success is its after-school program, operated jointly with the resource center, an innovative program that -provides 90 academically at-risk kids with additional guidance and enrichment, enhancing language skills and markedly improving their chances for success in the classroom.
"This program is a godsend to every family and citizen of Robbins," Seawell told me with her usual enthusiasm the other afternoon when Claire Ruggles and I dropped in to see the new construction and check out the moms and preschoolers signing up for kindergarten this fall. Lest you think the program exclusively serves Hispanic kids, the -second largest group of kids assisted by the after-school -program are young white males.
But that's not all the center does for Robbins - and the rest of us here in Moore County. Four mornings a week, young mothers bring their tots to the center to learn English and more about proper childhood development, giving them a boost up before their kids even enter the doorway of a school.
Recently, the center also -partnered with the county on a "Convert to Rent" program that encourages property owners to upgrade their substandard -properties and sublet them to qualifying low-income families, often revitalizing empty houses and moving children out of -dangerous home conditions.
Meanwhile, a related program is providing 20 families at a time with financial literacy training, teaching them how to navigate the sometimes bewildering world of banks. Those who complete the training and qualify for matching funds for family savings accounts may eventually become homeowners in the resurgent town of Robbins.
Perhaps the most popular of the center's children's programs is its highly successful summer camp, now approaching its third year of life. The six-week day camp is designed to help kids keep reading and learning over the idle summer months through a variety of themed programs and special games and projects designed by teachers. Last summer, the camp served 198 Robbins area kids, with the theme of "Aim for the Stars." Camp included a big field trip to the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill.
This year's summer camp theme is "CSI Robbins," a fun program designed to teach the campers the adventures of -investigating everything from crime to nature. This year, a bumper crop of more than 200 kids is expected to sign up.
A nice percentage of the camp's funding is provided by United Way, but owing to severe non-profit cutbacks everywhere something like $75,000 is still needed to cover the cost of sending the kids to camp.
"Somehow, some way, we'll find the money to make it happen," says Claire, who spends a lot of her days writing proposals for federal and state grants to keep the doors of the center open and the struggling families of Northern Moore County moving upward.
Become an Angel
If Robbins were located in the southern part of Moore County, the center could probably just hold a charity golf tournament and raise more than enough money in a single afternoon
But it isn't Seven Lakes or Southern Pines. Robbins isn't golf country.
That's why, even as we may be finally emerging from the throes of the so-called Great Recession, my friend Claire Ruggles has come up with a fairly novel approach to raising funds that will ensure the camp and the -center's other programs continue doing their important work.
Next week, she'll begin sending out letters asking for financial assistance from folks like you and me, hoping to create an annual giving fund that provides firmer financial footing for the center's life-changing programs.
Yeah, I know. Everyone is -asking for your help right now. And just about everyone asking frankly deserves it. Groups such as Pinehurst Surgical and the Sandhills Duplicate Bridge Players Association have already jumped in to help support the resource center. Ditto Communities in Schools and other local volunteer groups, such as BackPack Buddies. Claire's own mom, Rosie, just mentioned the need for kid backpacks to her sorority alumni club and received 50 donated backpacks within days.
As these generous benefactors have learned, every now and then, people like you and me have the opportunity to support a cause or organization that -directly impacts the life of our community in ways that stretch far beyond the borders of home.
Maybe you'll receive one of Claire's letters telling you all about the important work the -center does, politely asking for your financial support. If you do, I hope you'll take a drive up to Robbins and have a look around. You'll see a community on the rebound and perhaps realize why helping the center at this crucial juncture is really helping yourself.
At the end of our afternoon together in Robbins, meeting kids and chatting with their teachers, I asked Claire what she likes most about her job. She smiled, almost as if the question took her by -surprise. Almost as if she couldn't quite put it into words.
"Let me think about that before I answer," she said.
On Friday morning, there was an e-mail from Claire waiting for me.
"You asked me what the good things are about my job, and I didn't really answer," she wrote. "Almost every day, a child comes up and hugs me, or asks me if I remember something about last year's summer camp. Most of the kids talk about summer camp all year long. That the resource -center plays a positive role in these children's lives means the world to me. It's a lot easier for some people to succeed than -others, given circumstances beyond their control. If we can help provide support that will help kids have a shot at overcoming the obstacles they face, that means a lot."
If you'd like to join the -campaign or simply learn more about the resource center's remarkable work in northern Moore County, feel free to contact Claire at (910) 948-4324.
Then take a drive up to Robbins. It's another world but you won't be disappointed. To a lot of kids you may never meet, you may even become an angel.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw -magazine, can be contacted at email@example.com.
More like this story