In the summer of 1990, Aubrey and Margie Hall took a mission trip to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. What they found while working with the children of migrant farm workers was that many of the children were bright, intelligent, even academically gifted, yet no matter how much ability these kids had they were denied many of the opportunities available to other children from more stable backgrounds. As a former educator and coach in the public school system, Aubrey understood that unless someone, somewhere, stepped up and found a way to help these children, many of them would just fall through the cracks in the system and never reach their full potential.
Upon their return home, Aubrey and Margie started to set in motion a program that would grow and blossom – in a very short time – into Jacob’s Ladder. Starting small and growing gradually, after twenty-five years Jacob’s Ladder has touched hundreds of children’s’ lives and encouraged a whole new generation of leaders.
In April, 2016, founders, Board members, Climbers, family, and friends gathered at the University of Richmond to celebrate a quarter century of Jacob’s Ladder. One Climber Alumni, Calvin Smith (JL’97, who now serves on the Board of Directors for Jacob’s Ladder) offered his own story and recollections of the program:
I would like to thank Mr. and Mrs. Hall, the Board of Directors, the family and friends, the supporters, and most importantly the Climbers past, present, and future for allowing me to address this body on such an auspicious occasion.
Thank you to Bekinwari (JL’04) for that introduction and as you can see I have been able to capitalize on the opportunities that have been presented to me in life up until this point. I have accolades from my efforts in high school, attended some great universities, been recognized as one of the best sales representatives at three different Fortune 500 companies and I currently serve in a leadership role at one of the most prestigious institutions for higher education in the world. This is just the culmination of my experiences. How I got here and Jacob’s Ladder’s role in that process is what is important about this story.
I want to read an excerpt from my personal statement for my masters’ program:
“One day can change your life. One day can ruin your life. All life is three or four big days that change everything.” – Beverly Donofrio
A brush with death literally changed my life. Ironically, I didn’t find out about this life changing moment until six weeks after it happened. My mother was stabbed right after I left home for summer camp; four centimeters to the left and who knows what direction my life would have taken. I consider myself blessed, I should have been home for this atrocity, but the cosmos had a different agenda for me. The summer camp I attended is an enrichment camp for “at-risk” youth called “Jacob’s Ladder.” The camp’s qualifications for being identified as “at-risk” are: 1) attending an underperforming school or school district or 2) being identified as having a questionable family situation. I left that summer under the auspices of the former and returned under the latter. My mother came to pick me up from camp—after she and my family were on radio silence for six weeks—and explained to me what had happened. Learning the details about my mother’s attack signified the first drastically life-changing day of my life.
As I left the picturesque camp on Virginia’s Rappahannock River, I did not return to the comforts of my own home with my parents, little sister and my mutt Snowball. I returned to my aunt’s house with her two sons, my mother, my sister, and my Grandma. No longer residing with us, my father and uncle succumbed to the disease of drug addiction. Post camp, we all found ourselves, to quote my father “living life on life’s terms”. In other words, “life will throw you obstacles and you still have to live.”
It was by the grace of God I was at that picturesque camp and not at home that summer. Who knows what the outcome could have been. I might not be here today.
I now have a family of my own, and have gained more context about that time in my life, I have been able to reflect on that time in my life and on my experience with Jacob’s Ladder.
What I do not want you to take from this message is I or any of my fellow Climbers needed a savior. We needed a champion, we needed to have our gifts and talents acknowledged and developed.
What I have come to realize is this experience was about equity and social justice. As many of you know Jacob’s Ladder is a Christian organization, so I thought it appropriate to cite scripture to convey this message. In Isiah 1:17 – Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.
Psalms 99:4 – The strength of the King loves justice; You have established equity; You have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. “You have established equity.” Not a court of equity merely, but equity itself you have set up, and that not for a time or upon an occasion, but as an established institution, stable as thy throne.
It is actually a story of how Mr. and Mrs. Hall, people with conviction and who love the Lord actually applied His word. While this might not have been discussed in the terms of equity and social justice 25 years ago, what Jacob’s Ladder represents to me is the idea that EQUITY/social justice not Equality are the most important factors.
Equality represents what many people believe is fair, that everyone gets the same resources regardless of what position one started from. I am happy the people who founded this organization rejected this notion of equality. The reality is Jacob’s Ladder, through the vision of Mr. and Mrs. Hall, the original group of founders, their tireless work, and support from others through the years both with their talent, skills, and finances recognizes this is not the world we live in. Equality cannot and should not be the standard. We all do not start from the same position in life. We all don’t have the same resources, and programs like this one are what brings EQUITY to the world.
It is often thought one needs to be brilliant to escape adverse circumstances, and that shouldn’t be the standard to make it out of a difficult situation to become a productive citizen in society. The climbers needed someone who cared and still cares, that is what Mr. and Mrs. Hall and Jacob’s Ladder represents. People who understood that a little boy from Chesapeake, like me, needed a chance to blossom. People who understood that while they would encounter children from challenging circumstances, these obstacles should not determine their destiny. People who understood that almost any child could succeed if they had a little nudge in the right direction.
My fellow climbers and I were identified as gifted and talented kids who faced road blocks that could hinder our success. This program was designed to provide us resources and skills needed to remove those roadblocks. It was meant to encourage and develop, it was meant to bring equity where it might not obviously be present.
I like many others in attendance today are the success stories. All climbers are beneficiaries of this experience, and this ceremony today is a celebration of that vision. This was one of those experiences that has positively impacted so many. I believe I can speak on behalf of most climbers past, present and future and say that we appreciate all that the Halls and all those RAs, teachers, and Board Members have done to impact our lives. I now more fully understand the impact Jacob’s Ladder has had on my life, so much so, that I infuse these values of equity and social justice in my work and everyday life.
In conclusion I will refer to an earlier part of this message. But instead of speaking to equity I will say this Jacob’s Ladder itself you have set up, and that not for a time or upon an occasion, but as an established institution, stable as thy throne. This institution is stable, it is equitable, and it is socially just.
Congratulations to Jacob’s Ladder for reaching its silver anniversary and I look forward to having a greater impact and providing more of myself to ensure this program is around for many years to come.
View images from the 25th Anniversary event on our Flickr page.