Oliver Hill mentorship program thriving in Gainsboro neighborhood

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Roanoke elementary schoolers traveled to Australia, programmed robots and built a telephone with puzzle pieces — all from the childhood home of a history-making civil rights attorney.

A mentorship program at the Oliver Hill House has flourished in the six years since its opening. After school, children from four city elementary schools are bussed to the house, located in the historic Gainsboro neighborhood. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Virginia runs the program. Roanoke City Public Schools provides some funding and maintains the house.

Oliver Hill made history in the 1950s through his work as one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys involved in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down school segregation. Hill helped argue the portion of the case that involved separate and unequal school facilities in Farmville and Prince Edward County.

In the years before the landmark decision, Hill also was part of cases challenging segregated public transportation and unequal pay for black teachers. Hill died in 2007 at age 100.

Recently, Hill’s legacy was back under the spotlight in Roanoke, where he lived as a child and later practiced law before settling in Richmond. In late November, city officials unveiled a historic marker in front of Hill’s childhood home on Gilmer Avenue. In January, the Roanoke City Council voted to rename the city’s courthouse the Oliver W. Hill Justice Center.

For the program’s organizers, Hill’s perseverance serves as a symbol for many in Roanoke’s youngest generation. And the house, with its rich history, has provided the ideal atmosphere for enrichment.

The children’s “bigs” — their mentors from Big Brothers, Big Sisters — arrive at the house around 5 p.m. In the two hours prior, students engage in hands-on activities designed specifically for them with the program’s coordinator, Melissa Dow, and several volunteers.

After working on homework, the children have time to play before venturing on field trips or working on projects with analog tools related to science and technology.

On Feb. 19, Highland Park fifth-grader Aiesha Lewis marveled at a model old-time phone she made with 426 puzzle pieces. “It took me two weeks,” Aiesha said.

That timeline was the student’s humility on display, Dow said. Since the four schools in the program alternate the days they send their students, Aiesha had actually spent about two hours on the project — an even more impressive feat.

Fourth-grader Bryson Mackey’s also has a keen interest in engineering.

“I like to build everything,” he said, as a Ferris wheel made of blocks spun between his fingers.

The program is typically screen-free, Dow said, unless the children need to access a computer for homework or practice typing. Dow works with the schools to learn if students need help in specific areas, such as geography or math. Interactive games are designed based on those needs, Dow said.

Beth Reedy, director of programs for the Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter, has played a major role in the evolution of the program. The schools and the organization have “gotten into a good pattern” in determining which students would best fit, Reedy said.

Community organizations, such as the local bar association and the Roanoke Police Department, have helped the organization expand its offerings to the children through programming, Reedy said.

Highland Park Principal Mark Crummey said when the program was first announced, he was excited to learn it would be in a zone close to the school.

“I believe having as many people engaged with our students in positive ways is important,” he said.

Josh Thoemke, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters, said the program is funded largely by the school system, which provides $35,000 annually. The organization also established a fund seeking donations from the public.

Before the house served as home to a mentorship program, between 2009 and 2011 it was a legal aid center called the Oliver White Hill Community Law Center. The Oliver Hill Foundation began leasing the building to Roanoke City Public Schools in 2013 for upkeep.

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