Volunteer Rallies Community to Support High-Risk Kids

Ann Baker first connected with UMFS through her church in 2002, but her passion for serving highrisk children dates back to her experience working as an art teacher for a junior high school in North Carolina in 1975.

“In those days, schools were at a low point in serving kids with disabilities,” Ann remembers. “Most of us didn’t have a clue what to do with kids with special needs — there were just no resources and no training for us.”

In 1975, Congress passed the Education for all Handicapped Children Act (EHA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Together, the two laws established the right to public education for all students regardless of disability and mandated that states that accept public funds for education must provide special education to children with disabilities.

“All of a sudden,” Ann remembers, “children who I was not prepared to teach were dumped into my classroom … I got on a bit better than some of the other teachers because I was teaching art, but there were a lot of rough days.”

Ann taught in North Carolina public schools for 25 years before retiring to her hometown of Harrisonburg, VA, where her work as a champion for high-risk kids would continue through her church.

“If you attended Asbury United Methodist church during Doug Hill’s tenure there, you knew about UMFS,” Ann says of the Rev. L. Douglas Hill who served the church as pastor for eight years. Doug presented UMFS as an opportunity to do mission work and invited UMFS President and CEO Greg Peters to come speak at the church in 2002.

“Hearing Greg talk about the kids and families UMFS serves took me back to that classroom in 1975 when I felt helpless to support those kids,” Ann says. “For me, working with UMFS gave me a chance to make things right for them.”

In 2011, Ann started a Child Advocacy Council (now called Child Champion Council) in Harrisonburg to support UMFS. Ann’s leadership of the council became critical when UMFS Charterhouse School–Edinburg, about 30 miles northeast of Harrisonburg, opened in 2013. The school serves students in the Shenandoah Valley area with autism and other neurological differences, as well as emotional and behavioral challenges.

Ann saw the school as a rallying point for churches in the valley. Her vision was that, while some of the larger churches could support the school financially, the smaller ones could be the hands and feet of the mission, serving the school as volunteers. Clergy and lay people from 10 area churches joined forces to help the school. Members of Asbury UMC donated funds to purchase a kiln for the art classroom. Braddock Street UMC donated $2,700 worth of gift cards. The Rev. Bob Jones championed his congregations at St. John’s UMC and Wesley Chapel to stuff Christmas stockings with toys and treats for students.

“Ann essentially single-handedly rallied support for the school by reaching out to more churches in the surrounding counties and getting more people to join the council to support the school,” says UMFS Volunteer Manager Angie Williams.

Ann is a vocal advocate for keeping students with special needs in their community. She worked with Charterhouse School administration to bring six superintendents from nearby school districts to the summer Child Champion Council meeting. Those strong community connections helped Charterhouse School–Edinburg grow from serving 18 students when it opened to 45 at the start of this year.

“Ann was instrumental in getting the word out in the valley about Charterhouse School–Edinburg,” says Greg Peters, UMFS president and CEO. “She’s been a champion for the students we serve there, bringing new volunteers and resources to the table as the school has grown to serve more and more children and families.”

“At UMFS, we are constantly attracting and collaborating with unwavering champions for high-risk children and families,” says Greg Peters, “Ann is a committed champion who exhibits passion, perseverance, and tireless energy. When presented with a challenge, she responds as an unstoppable force of good. Her leadership encourages and supports many community volunteer efforts. She is a game changer for children in the Shenandoah Valley.”

Last year — 40 years after starting her career as an art teacher — Ann stepped back into the classroom, as a volunteer and mentor for the school’s art program. “Life is coming full circle for me on a lot of levels,” says Ann.

Volunteers like Ann serve on Child Champion Councils throughout Virginia. Get involved! Attend a Child Champion Council in your local area.

For more information on how you can serve, visit our website at church-relations or contact Angie Williams, or 804.239.1039.

Read the full issue here.