By Carolyn Comeau
Ever known someone who, once she puts her mind to something, cannot be stopped? The special women of OpenDoors, a growing and vital local nonprofit, reflect this determined energy many times over; the prize: helping children reach their potential, despite the overwhelming obstacles posed by poverty. OpenDoors provides assistance that ranges from tutoring and learning difference testing to shepherding parents through complicated school application processes and providing transportation to soccer practice or a school performance.
The efforts of energetic founder/director Jen Ramming, a host of parent volunteer mentors, and the parents of the children being served provide an individually-based, holistic family support system, as well as proof that “family” is not limited to genetic particulars. Ramming has spent the past several years building relationships with mothers, school administrators and teachers, with the intention of focusing on at-risk children’s varied needs. She explains the team approach of OpenDoors, sharing that they do their best work “in partnership with other people and other agencies who are ‘best in class’ at what they do.”
She recalls, as a native Vermonter who grew up without witnessing much diversity, her surprise as a first-time Asheville elementary school mom, seeing the racial and cultural disparity in her son’s third grade classroom. One of the more disturbing realities was the steady academic progress the middle class students were making, while economically challenged kids were falling behind; behavioral issues were also often part of the equation. “It seemed like something was deeply wrong to me… wasted human potential is something I have trouble tolerating, and especially in children, because they have so few real choices or power to change their situations,” Ramming explains.
Most of Asheville’s schools have OpenDoors children attending them, and two local moms in particular speak eloquently about their children’s triumphs as a result of their relationships with OpenDoors. Both happen to be mothers of four, and that alone would keep any mom on her toes, requiring significant emotional energy, physical stamina and financial resources. But what would it be like if you were young, single and struggling with significant financial challenges?
Kimya Pickens, 28 and an Ashevillenative, is dealing with the challenges listed above, but advocating tirelessly for her children nevertheless, with the help of OpenDoors. Pickens speaks of her children, Davon, 11, Latrina, 10, Damon, 9 and Kamiyah, 5, with obvious love and great pride. A strong and independent young woman with an open manner and brilliant smile, she frankly enumerates the challenges facing her children: “We live in a neighborhood where lots of kids end up on the wrong path, where drugs and other dangers are realities I worry about for my kids. OpenDoors has ended up being my family partner.”
It all started in 2005, when a friendship developed between Kimya and the mothers of two of Davon’s classmates, Katherine Brooks and Peggy Weil. They were all in the same looping K-2 class at Asheville’s Isaac Dickson Elementary School. The kids got involved in the same sports programs and started spending time together outside of school, and the friendships blossomed.
Unfortunately, by the time Davon reached the end of second grade, his progression to the third was in question. Weil was concerned and asked Ramming for advice. “Davon’s dad had not been a consistent presence in his life, and it was having a big impact on him. He was distracted and sad, and his grades dropped,” Pickens explains. “Katherine and Peggy stepped in with Davon when he was on the verge of failing – I call them ‘my backbone.’ They advocated for Davon with me to the school principal, and we all made a pact, including my son. He promised to work as hard as he could to do better, and we agreed to support him as he entered third grade.”
The pact proved prescient and Davon succeeded academically, but the next hurdle was middle school, a tricky time for any kid, socially and academically. Pickens shares that she was worried about what would happen if Davon ended up at Asheville Middle School, which is large and had the potential to offer temptations and distractions.
Katherine and Peggy became more involved with OpenDoors last year, when the three set their sights on getting Davon into the French Broad River Academy, a local private boys’ middle school. “The number one reason I love OpenDoors is that it helps keep my son busy with the things he loves to do: academics, soccer, basketball. Katherine and Peggy helped me with the application process, and after many hours of filling out paperwork, waiting, praying and crossing our fingers, he’s there this year on a full scholarship!”
Pickens emphasizes the fact that black boys, in particular, routinely navigate the minefield of living in two very different worlds: the world of school and the considerably tougher world of the ’hood, where unique expectations exist and success requires a completely different set of behavioral norms. “We live in a project, and it’s hard for young black boys to make it, to succeed academically or in any way, and academics are key to their future success. It’s hard to keep our boys on the right path in an environment where there’s danger and temptation – I want Davon to be the one out of 10 in our neighborhood who makes it out. OpenDoors has given us a huge opportunity for a brighter future.” She praises the fact that at school he’s surrounded by longtime friends and asserts she wouldn’t trade these connections for anything. “OpenDoors helps him keep a schedule full of academic and sports opportunities; he’s so busy he can’t get into trouble – there’s no time!” she exclaims, laughing.
It’s obvious Pickens is beyond proud of Davon, and touched by the longterm belief OpenDoors has in him, and by extension, her family. “I believe they saw something special in Davon – potential. When Katherine explained what OpenDoors was to me, it sounded amazing – they do all they can to help kids get what they need to reach their potential, whether that’s academic help, shuttling kids to activities, or even emergency help, like when I was in danger of being evicted from my apartment recently. It’s not a coincidence that Davon is now an A-B student and excelling in the highest level of youth-league soccer.”
Pickens sums it up best: “I’m so proud of my kids, and OpenDoors is part of the reason I can brag! Katherine, Peggy and I are a team, and they encourage me in my work to be a strong mother.”
Lisa Whittenburg is also from Asheville and mother to Jyquwan Boyd, 21, Navante Johnson, 12 and Jaheim and Cynthia, both fourth graders. Her story is punctuated with urgency as she describes trying to get help for Navante, who struggled with reading. Though Whittenburg knew his school was trying to help, she became frustrated with the limited strategies they were using to address his reading issue, and it brought back bad memories for her.
“My oldest son’s learning disabilities were not addressed properly, and I didn’t want Navante to go through what he did. I felt really concerned about trying anything we could to help him. I wanted to help, but I’m not a teacher.”
Whittenburg continues, explaining how her family came to learn about the program. “Our path to OpenDoors started when Paige Sergeant was Navante’s reading buddy at Vance Elementary. When Paige’s schedule wouldn’t allow this anymore, her dad, Art Trunkfield, started working with him. They developed a really tight bond, and we got to know the whole family when Art invited us to a picnic at his lake house in Morganton. The kids swam and played together – we really felt included.”
Whittenburg’s family began their formal relationship with OpenDoors about a year ago through Art’s other daughter Courtney. Lisa cites an example of how OpenDoors partnered with her to obtain specialized and costly academic testing from community partner and owner of the Academic Assessment Center, Nicole Baker, in an effort to pinpoint his learning challenges. This led to his diagnosis of a type of dyslexia and with that, Navante’s family, teachers and OpenDoors support network set about creating a plan to help him. “After the testing, it was such a relief to know what we were dealing with,” Whittenburg shares. The advocacy that OpenDoors provided proved key for her, and she continues: “I was amazed that Jen and Art came with me to meetings with school administrators and teachers – they helped me express my wants and needs for my kids. Navante has done so well in such a short time; without OpenDoors, I don’t believe he would have made this progress. They also looked at my whole family, asked what we needed and they’ve helped me with all of them.”
She cites obstacles similar to Pickens’ in securing services for her children, ones not uncommon for single moms. “It’s hard financially being a single mom. I’d often be working when school meetings happened, and it was difficult finding transportation and juggling the schedules of four kids with second shift work. Before OpenDoors, it was tough to see my kids struggle and not know how to help. I’d see a commercial for Sylvan Learning Centers and think, ‘I can’t afford that and I want to give my kids the best.’”
Whittenburg explains that her mother was single too, and her generation had issues about accepting outside help. She sees her relationship with OpenDoors though, as a joint effort. “OpenDoors is helping me break the poverty chain for my kids so they have hope for a better future – we’re breaking a generational curse and to me, this is what community means. OpenDoors has impacted my dreams for my kids so much.”
Meanwhile, Ramming just wishes OpenDoors could help every child in need. There’s currently a waiting list for services, and they know they can’t immediately serve all these children without more financial and human resources. “I don’t think we do our best work trying to see how many kids we can serve; instead, we try to focus on how far we can take them,” she declares.
Ramming’s drive and deep commitment are informed by the example of her parents. “They taught me to leave things better than I found them. They consistently acted, and still do, with truth and kindness in everyday ways, and I endeavor to do the same. I specifically recall times they advocated for the underdog and showed great compassion for others through action, not just money or words. I was raised with the phrase ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ which is a universal leveler.”
The teams that comprise OpenDoors – board, mentors, teachers, coaches and counselors, comprise a nontraditional, but powerfully wonderful family, a fact that is not wasted on Ramming, who is adopted. “Family has a different meaning for me than for some. I believe love and family are ideas you can allow, create and share, not just inherit. I guess that’s what drives me… that we can make a happier, healthier community for ourselves if we all let a variety of people into our inner circles.”
Ramming admits she’s not beyond being surprised continually by OpenDoors, as Pickens and Whittenburg were. “These ‘OpenDoors’ swing both ways… my kids are growing up to be better people and the OpenDoors kids we help support hopefully are too. There’s more to be gained by taking a chance on an unconventional friendship than if we did what was expected – we want to help all our kids grow up to be compassionate, literate, inspired members of society.”
She also shares that she’s continually honored to have the privilege to learn about others’ families and cultures. Ramming got a laugh out of a recent text from her now long-time friend and first OpenDoors mom, Latisha Edgerton. “She calls me her ‘second brain’ because of the way we have raised our boys together – I help her and she inspires me more than she’ll ever know.”
Whittenburg expresses the thanks that all involved with OpenDoors seem to feel: “I believe God placed the OpenDoors folks in my path for a reason, and I’m so grateful.”
If you’d like to make a difference in the life of a child, attend OpenDoors’ annual gala fundraiser, the Art Affair. Scheduled for February 23rd at the Venue in downtown Asheville, the evening will feature local food, music and art. All auction proceeds will benefit OpenDoors. For details, go to OpenDoorsAsheville.org.
Carolyn Comeau is a freelance writer/editor, educator and marketing professional based in Weaverville. She’s thrilled and grateful to be an almost sixyear breast cancer survivor, and became active in healthcare reform as a result of her journey. Her family is comprised of husband Craig, son Colin, 12, daughter Louise, 9 and Alvin, an 18-pound feline. She can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 828-989-0202.