|Bringing People Back
This turn-of-the-century stalk cutter
is part of the old-time farm equipment collection at Albemarle Learning
Center in Chowan County.
The land it has cast a spell on humans since
the dawn of time. It has sustained us and nurtured us from the beginning.
But as farmland around us has been developed, trees cut down, and wetlands
filled in, our everyday reverence and respect for the land has diminished.
Many of us may be far from our roots, but the vision of two people in
eastern North Carolina bears witness that the land is still crucial to
There was a time in rural North Carolina when a child either put
in tobacco in the summer or knew somebody who did. There was likely
a farmer in the family, if not then, not too many generations back. But
as air conditioners and televisions brought us indoors, off the front
porches and out of the sand lots and creek beds, town folks and country
folks alike lost touch with the land and the culture of the land.
Bob Harrell wants to change that. He wants to reconnect people, especially
young people, with their culture or their agri-culture. And he has made
a good start at the Albemarle Learning Center (ALC) in Chowan County.
Harrell, a retired Baptist minister, understands something about the power
of connections. In fact ALC started because he noticed a special connection
happening before his eyes.
Harrell had always kept a pony for his grandchildren to ride. He noticed
that his granddaughter, Ashlee, who has Down Syndrome, connected with
the pony in a special way. She found a special joy in her relationship
with the animal and the animal seemed to reciprocate. That inspired Harrell
to invite her physically and mentally challenged classmates out to ride,
which led to a therapeutic riding program, which led to the formation
of a board, the purchase of an 80 acre farm, and the construction of a
$300,000 facility five miles north of Edenton.
The facility now houses The Oasis Project, an alternative learning program
for at-risk students who have experienced severe behavior, attendance
and/or academic problems. Part-nering with area school systems, ALC offers
what Harrell calls, hands-on experimental learning and maturing
opportunities. The kids from Oasis help the disabled youth with
their riding activities, often leading to first-time feelings of self-worth,
and they learn animal care and flower and vegetable gardening, employing
math and earth science skills.
Beverly Patterson, folklife specialist at the North Carolina Arts Council,
knew of Harrells work and told him about the Annenburg Rural Challenge,
a program to promote place-based education. He applied for
a grant and was awarded $500,000 over three years to provide training
for teachers to use outside-of-the-classroom projects and activities to
enhance the teaching of math, science, environmental education, and rural
folk history and culture. The project demolishes the walls which separate
the schools from community and the community from schools, and in this
case marries learning with the rich agricultural heritage of northeastern
The new building houses a lab and kitchen where students can experiment
with the many edible and non-edible products that come from peanuts, corn,
and soybeans. The Cannon Foundation provided $15,000 to equip the lab
and kitchen. And North Carolina State University has placed a math and
science specialist on the premises to help students understand the relationship
between their own learning experiences and the environment and community.
Fourth- to sixth-grade students from Perquimans, Chowan, and Gates Counties
now come regularly to the ALC, which also includes a collection of turn-of-the-century
farm equipment and machinery to demonstrate old-time farming practices.
We want to reconnect them to their rural heritage, to show them
about peanuts and cotton. For instance, they learn how the cotton becomes
the jeans they wear, says Harrell.
To help make that reconnection, ALC has brought on board Ginger Morelock,
a folklorist funded by the Arts Council and the National Endowment for
the Arts. She will serve as a cultural specialist in collaboration with
the schools, guiding teachers who engage in folklife documentation projects
with students. She will help develop materials and models to incorporate
folklife/folklore into the curriculum, and she will help identify individuals
who are community tradition bearers. Students will learn the ins and outs
of folklore field work while learning of their heritage. It is expected
that as students do community research, talking with their elders
and learning about their local culture and ecology, they will become citizens
who have something of value to contribute to their communities.
One student already engaged in the program commented, It has brought
me back to my grandfather. And maybe students will soon connect
the taste of peanut butter from the local grocery with that autumn smell
of freshly turned peanuts in the fields around home.