When Gina and Bryan Christ moved to Virginia two years ago, the mother and son duo thought that their days of working together were over. Fortunately for the Charlottesville educational community, that notion didn’t last for long, and their venture Rise 4 Real Change, an evolving and adaptive teen mentoring program is now an integral part of the curriculum at Western Albemarle High School (with two more Charlottesville schools to be rolled out this fall). Bryan, a UVA First Year at the time, and Gina, newly enjoying a well-earned schedule sans a regular 9-5, had recently left behind a beloved mentorship program that they had created and fostered in their North Carolina hometown. Although in theory they had now shifted focus to other things, they couldn’t shake the feeling that they were called to do more.
A family vacation in Virginia Beach served as a needed catalyst to reopen the discussion. Gina and Bryan recall a particular moment during that trip as a pivotal point in the creation of their venture – staring out at the vast ocean and watching the waves ripple to the shore, they agreed that their mutual goal to inspire and support kids throughout their academic journeys was far from complete.
Gina had spent over 25 years working as a school counselor in both New York and North Carolina and, through her tenure, she had touched the lives of countless students who came through the ranks of the private school at which she worked and Bryan studied. One day, a student who had been heavily involved in the local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter, came into her office dismayed that the county had unexpectedly dropped the program. He wondered aloud what would happen to the child whom he had mentored for three years and was clearly devastated that he “didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.” Gina and Bryan felt compelled to help fill the void that had been left in their county and to do their part to ensure that no children felt excluded from the traditional constructs of the system. They turned their “social and moral obligation” into action and began a program that connected their high school student community to area public elementary schools in need. Thus, in 2011, “Big Buddy Teen Mentors” was born.
In 2014, the idea became bigger in size and scope when Bryan, spurred by the continued desire to “help make the education system work for everyone, not just for kids like me,” joined the North Carolina Youth Council and subsequently launched a state-wide Mentoring, Leadership, and Anti-Bullying program. The following year, the whole family relocated to Charlottesville to begin new life chapters – Bryan started school at UVA at the same time that his father accepted a professorship in Biomedical Engineering and Orthopaedic Surgery.
“We were missing our calling,” Gina remembers about those early days in Virginia. Sitting on the sand in Virginia Beach that fall, she and Bryan quickly agreed that they needed to continue their work in a new capacity. With the benefit of a fresh start, they decided that they no longer wanted to approach the program with a one-off mindset, which made the program inherently susceptible to alterations in school administrative staff or other natural cycles of change. “One school at a time, [it’s] always going to fail. The only way this is going to reach its true potential is if we go nationwide, [if] the program will be incorporated into educational reform across the country.”
Bryan, now a rising Third Year Youth and Social Innovation and Religious Studies major at UVA, sought the support of the Curry School and, in particular, Dr.Edith Lawrence and Dr. Melissa Levy who became valuable advisors to their team. Lawrence and Levy helped shape the program as they continued their efforts to roll it out in the unfamiliar Charlottesville market. Under their guidance, the Christs created a pipeline between Bryan’s YSI classmates and high school students at Western Albemarle who were seeking support during the often-overwhelming college/workforce readiness, college/career search and application process. These WAHS students, many representing the first generations of their families for whom the opportunity to attend college is within reach, benefit greatly from the UVA students’ mentorship. However, they also give back in turn – a crucial aspect of Rise 4 Real Change’s mission, embodied by the term service learning. With the guidance of Rise, The Western High School participants have themselves worked with elementary school students, spending service days nurturing children at the Piedmont Family YMCA Intergenerational Learning Center and the Ronald McDonald House, thus inspiring a new generation of leaders. The Christs believe that the ripple effects created from such a model are incredibly powerful – and perhaps the key to bringing about real nationwide change in a system that can feel as overwhelming as the Atlantic Ocean itself.
There’s a Mother Teresa quote that states: “we ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” For Gina, “when a young person’s light switches [on], and their mindset changes from one of disempowerment to unbridled excitement and engagement,” she feels the greatest personal rewards she could imagine. “Then eventually all those people are going to do it for another 20 people, so it just keeps going without us even being part of the process anymore. And that’s it for me.”