For centuries, ladders have served as analogies for one’s progress in life, be it up or down. Some speak of ladders as life’s successive steps upward towards excellence; each rung presenting a new lesson, a new challenge that, once mastered, prepares us for the next step in our individual evolution. For some intellectually gifted children, their ladder in life seems more like an imposing climbing wall; a vertical obstacle without straightforward progressions.
Unlike a ladder, each step taken on a climbing wall may leave a climber grasping for handholds and struggling for footholds whose course is unclear. Each step may require a different capability or skill and, once the climb is complete, some children reach the same vertical height only to discover they have not necessarily mastered comparable skills.
As a volunteer working on a summer mission trip with children of migrant workers on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Aubrey Hall saw firsthand the insurmountable struggles young people, with raw intellectual talents, faced with little or no opportunities. These children of the harvest, aimless and blameless, traveled with family from farm to farm in search of work, living an appalling subsistence in one of the world’s richest countries. Their plight preyed on Aubrey’s mind so much that, as a former teacher and real estate developer, he just couldn’t walk away.
In 1991, Aubrey and his wife, Margie, along with the support of Reverend Robert Phipps, then Headmaster at Christchurch School in Middlesex, launched a proactive program for intellectually gifted children who were struggling with obstacles towards success. Unless someone intervened, many would fail to reach their full potential.
An academic enrichment program would certainly be a good first step up a ladder that presented many challenges, but youngsters needed more than just the three Rs. They needed to develop social skills, learn emotional discipline, and receive spiritual guidance in order to capture that raw talent and mold it into a recipe for success; and so Jacob’s Ladder was born. They called their children Climbers.
The Halls launched their first Climber class in 1992 with a handful of talented 4th and 5th graders and a grant from the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund, a philanthropic organization who invests in building the assets of people, family, and communities. Jacob’s Ladder set out to aid in the development of at-risk gifted children in grades 4th thru 8th to reach their full potential intellectually, socially, and emotionally; to provide a support network for the family unit, and offer guidance in planning for and arranging advanced educational opportunities. As future leaders, Climbers would be equipped with skills that one day they could put to good use helping others in similar economic and social situations.
Jacob’s Ladder relies on a growing network of teachers, guidance counselors, coordinators of gifted and talented programs, and community leaders to identify and recruit at-risk children in grades 4-5 who have been deemed intellectually gifted via standardized tests. Many are struggling academically, socially, and emotionally within the confines of public education. Candidates are intensely vetted and assessed while their parents learn more about the five-year program and the responsibilities it entails. There are far more applicants than openings, for this program has earned a reputation for quality and excellence. Not that there aren’t some shaky starts in the climb upward.
“Some stumble; others fall off the ladder and we have to push them back up,” Joanne Ruffa, a retired middle school counselor who serves as the group’s Camp Counselor, explains. “It’s one rung at a time; one success at a time.”
Climbers come from all walks of life. Many are children of single parents struggling to make ends meet. Others come from dysfunctional families or households where a family member is incarcerated. Some struggle with low self-esteem, others with anger management. Jacob’s Ladder may be the first place a Climber finds friendship, hope, and unconditional love. For some, it’s the only stable home life they’ve known. Some have never been outside their own neighborhood; many have experienced some form of loss.
The first rung on the organization’s ladder begins with a residential summer camp program. For 4-5 weeks each summer, and until they begin 9th grade, Climbers enjoy a variety of academic, cultural, and recreational activities while living in a supervised dorm life that assists them in developing skills such as punctuality and personal responsibility. Since 2013, the summer residential enrichment camp has been held on the campus of St. Margaret’s School in Tappahannock.
An academic staff spends 18 hours a week with each Climber, providing enrichment opportunities in the sciences and humanities. Situated on the banks of the Rappahannock River, its location allows Climbers an opportunity to appreciate and to explore this vital estuarine system, and older Climbers participate in water and environmental conservation initiatives.
Resident Assistants, many of them
former graduates of the program, organize a number of recreational, athletic, and community service activities. Summer classes include art, theatre, music, storytelling, public speaking, creative writing, mock court, swim lessons, water sports, adolescent health issues, as well as academic studies.
“The kids seem to appreciate the structure, the schedules that many lack at home,” says Joanne. “For the first time they learn to trust their peers, to share experiences and fears, and try out new skills without fear of failure.”
When summer ends, Climbers maintain year-round contact with Jacob’s Ladder staff members, who monitor their academic performance and provide extracurricular opportunities such as concerts, museums, art galleries, sporting events, and retreats. When a Climber graduates from the program, assistance in exploring educational options may be offered. For some, it may mean an opportunity to attend private, residential college preparatory schools throughout the state.
“Raymond was in 4th grade when he came to us,” Aubrey recalls. “He was given the opportunity to attend Ware Academy in Gloucester. His biggest issue was anger management. There was no question about his brightness; he just had a hard time with his anger and it was an issue we faced when he came to camp. Then he was accepted at Woodbury Forest School and, upon graduation, received a full scholarship to the University of Richmond, with whom there is a partnership arrangement. He graduated last year and now works for a non-profit in the Richmond area working with at-risk children.” Ray is just one of the organization’s many success stories.
Since 2006 almost 70% of Climbers have graduated from college in four years; the national average is 39%. Since the program’s inception, more than 350 Climbers from Virginia and North Carolina have successfully completed the program. Almost 100% graduate high school and 94% go on to higher education. Since the start of the program, more than $8 million in scholarship funding has been awarded to college-bound Climbers. Past Climbers have attended or are attending Stanford, Dartmouth, Brown, University of Chicago, Georgetown University, William & Mary, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke, and the Wharton School of Business, to name a few. Some have graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Others have gone on to serve in the military.
Climbers come from as far north as Fredericksburg, as far south as NE North Carolina and as far west as the Shenandoah Valley. Joanne and Aubrey recall one young man from Staunton we’ll call K.S., who entered the program in 5th grade. By the time he reached 7th grade, the school system wanted to jump him ahead two grades. The staff at Jacob’s Ladder was worried K.S. wasn’t emotionally prepared to interact with 9th graders, but he delighted everyone by making straight A’s and A+’s. “At camp I got to be social,” K.S. stated enthusiastically and that became the secret of his success.
“Jacob’s Ladder is privately funded. There’s no government money involved,” Aubrey points out with pride. “Foundations, some corporations, and a list of several hundred patrons support us. We hold two fundraising events a year-- a golf tournament at the Golden Eagle Golf Course in Irvington in May, and the popular Oyster Tasting event in September hosted by the Rappahannock Oyster Company at Merroir in Topping, which is sponsored by First Tennessee Bank, who has an office in Richmond. We were invited by them to make a presentation, as they were looking to get involved in affecting the community in some positive way.” For Jacob’s Ladder and their kids, it was a match made in Heaven.
For Climbers, the climbing wall no longer seems insurmountable. Jacob’s Ladder has given these youngsters the courage to mount each rung of life’s ladder with new-found confidence, and instilled a strong sense of values and self-
determination that will serve as tools for success the rest
of their lives.
To learn more about Jacob’s Ladder, you can visit their website at www.jladder.org or by calling 1-800-368-2870.