High Rocks Educational Corporation – Hillsboro, WV
Renae Hall interviewed by Claudia Rivera '18
I met Renae Hall while working as a summer intern at High Rocks Education Corporation. Throughout the entire summer, I was in awe of how she handled her job with extreme grace while finding time to take care of her daughter and help us interns figure out how to do our jobs. Renae has had a long and at times difficult road as a part of High Rocks. She moved to West Virginia when she was in the 8th grade. She didn’t want to be there and hated everything about the space. She hated being in the middle of nowhere. She wanted nothing to do with anything or anyone. It didn’t take long for Susan Burt, the founder of High Rocks, to notice Renae in the halls at school. Once she noticed her, she immediately invited her to High Rocks, but Renae refused. Susan knew that High Rocks could help Renae, so she pushed it, but Renae continued to refuse. Susan had no choice but to call her mother, who in turn convinced Renae to give High Rocks a chance. Renae became a part of High Rocks soon after, and quickly realized that Susan had been right. She felt supported all through high school, college and afterwards. She went through camp, then became a Junior Counselor, then left to go to college but returned through AmeriCorps and eventually became a full-time staff member as the Development Coordinator. Now, years after her first camp, Renae is the Operations Coordinator.
Renae always saw herself doing some sort of social work, but never expected to come back to High Rocks, and she certainly didn’t see herself working with teenagers.
“My expectation for future careers was to work with the homeless. My goal was to open a homeless shelter that was funded by a business that was run by the homeless themselves. I had no aspirations to work with young people and no intentions to come back to West Virginia permanently.”
This is why, once out of college, Renae got a job working at a homeless shelter in Kentucky and fully planned on making this a long term position. Working there, however, she quickly realized that she wasn’t going to be working directly with any clients and noticed that her work wouldn’t make a concrete impact. She soon got laid off because of budget cuts and found herself back in West Virginia working at a gas station. One day, Sara Riley, current director of High Rocks, stumbled upon Renae there and encouraged her to apply for their available AmeriCorps positions, and she did. She applied because she had loved and felt so supported by High Rocks before, but not necessarily because she wanted to spend her life working with teenagers.
It wasn’t until her second year of doing AmeriCorps service that Renae realized that working with young people, specifically those in West Virginia, was surprisingly fulfilling. She realized that her work at High Rocks could make a concrete impact on the lives of these teenagers and began to notice that the High Rocks participants also impacted her:
“They made me want to be a better and stronger person, so that I could help them more. I was really surprised by my participants when they pulled together to support me when I was dealing with hardships in my own life. When my dad passed away, my office at High Rocks was flooded with cards of love and support from dozens of High Rocks participants. When my husband had a stroke, once again, I received phone calls and emails from participants, sending love and telling me that they would be happy to help watch my daughter if I needed help. When I have my 4 year-old daughter with me at work, the participants go out of their way to talk to her and make sure that she feels welcomed and has fun.”
In doing this work Renae has realized that however fulfilling it is, it also comes with great challenges. Over so many years, Renae now knows that the biggest challenge, at least for her, is that her work is never enough. There will always be more kids who are ignored. There will always be kids who feel unloved and are underserved. She sees this as the number of young people who come to the different High Rocks programs grows year after year. Though it is challenging, there are moments that make the challenge worth it.
“Watching the kids I work with grow and succeed. Having the kids come to me when they need help, love or just a shoulder to cry on. The young people in this area have so much hardship and so many people telling them what they cannot do, just one person telling them “yes you can!” is enough for them to overcome and power-through. My biggest reward in this line of work is getting to be that “yes you can” voice and watching the young people use that voice to succeed.”
In her time at High Rocks, Renae has learned a lot. She’s seen girls grow from scared, lonely teenagers into strong, independent young women. She gets to be the person who believes in them and tells them that every single person who has ever told them they can’t is wrong. She gets to show them that they can. She has also grown personally in part because of the participants themselves. She knows how hard her work and general nonprofit work is but she also knows that it is worth it.
“Don’t give up. Nonprofit work is hard to do and doesn’t pay a lot and there usually aren’t a lot of positions available. Be patient and know that the wait is worth it. Once you have the position you want, keep in mind that you can’t change the whole world in a day or even a year, but you can change the world of your young people in under an hour, just by being there for them, listening to them and picking them up when they fall. The smallest actions make the biggest difference.”
—Claudia Rivera '18