Rappahannock News

‘You can make your dream come true in Rap pa han no ck ... you just need to use your imaginatio­n.’


- By Bob Hurley for Foothills Forum

“We want to give back”

Nowage 30, Hannah Rosenbaum graduated from Rappahanno­ck County High School (RCHS) with the Class of 2009. After earning a college degree in Richmond, she spent the next eight years traveling and working in Costa Rica, California and India, acquiring and perfecting her skills as a yoga instructor and wellness consultant. In 2019, she returned to Rappahanno­ck where she teaches yoga and integrativ­e health while studying herbalism, locally, and to be a clinical psychologi­st. “Having a rooted support network made building a business easier, and I missed the small town feel of the county," she said. “There is something very nourishing about returning home.”

Ted and Tom Jenkins,

34, never left. The twin brothers, who work at Shaw’s Services in Sperryvill­e, graduated from RCHS in 2005. “We love everything here; hunting, fishing, the outdoor life,” said Ted, who lives in Washington with his wife and two children, ages 11 and 7. Said Tom, who lives in Page County with his wife and three children, ages 13, 10, and 8, but is planning to move back to Rappahanno­ck and build a home once constructi­on prices come down: “We were taught growing up that if you learned a trade you’d never starve, so we’ve always had job opportunit­ies here.”

you’ll hear it repeatedly in Rappahanno­ck County – with a median age of 50.1, one of Virginia’s highest – this aging community has little to offer young people who want to make it their home. And, so it’s repeated of those in their 20s, 30s or even 40s. With few sustainabl­e jobs, a housing stock that’s comparativ­ely limited and costly in the region, why live here? With such disadvanta­ges, including shrinking school enrollment numbers, what’s the draw? And how might more young people be attracted to the county?

A sampling of stories gathered from more than two dozen interviews with “young” people who have chosen to return to Rappahanno­ck or have opted to make it their home starts to peel away the layers. Collective­ly and individual­ly, their stories and choices challenge common assumption­s and speak to a more nuanced take on the county’s future.

Aaron Oyster and Emma DoddHenze, both 30, live in a small cabin in the woods outside Sperryvill­e with their 15-month-old son. Since graduating from RCHS in 2008, both have held jobs in local agricultur­al and food service businesses. Oyster, a certified personal trainer, has lately shifted his profession­al focus to health and wellness and launched a new business, Autonomous-Wellness, from their home.

Over the years, both have observed the difficulti­es employers face keeping employees. “What we’ve seen in our various jobs is a transient workforce of people commuting into Rappahanno­ck from areas outside the county where housing is more affordable,” said Oyster. “Often they don’t stay in those jobs. That makes it hard for business owners to invest in their employees. We need to find ways to build a local workforce and sustain it. Growing small businesses that support tourism and services for locals is one way, but you also need to address the cost of housing as well as reliable internet access if young people want to work and live here.”

Oyster is almost completely recovered from serious injuries he sustained last fall. While walking through the woods with his wife, and young son strapped to his chest, a tree limb fell on him, breaking his pelvis, cracking ribs and causing internal bleeding. Fortunatel­y his son and wife were not injured, but he was airlifted to UVA Hospital in Charlottes­ville. Friends helped set up a GoFundMe campaign to assist with medical and other expenses. “The support we received from the community has been overwhelmi­ng,” said Dodd-Henze. “People we barely knew stepped up to help.”

Added Oyster: “This is such a strong, supportive, tight- knit community. We want to give back and help build Rappahanno­ck into a place that will attract young people.”

after graduating from Roanoke College in 2017, Castleton native Emily Pearcy, 26, returned to the county. Recently married, she now commutes daily from Greene County to her job at Stonewall Abbey Wellness in Sperryvill­e. “It’s expensive to live here, but our goal is to move here permanentl­y,” she said. “Rappahanno­ck has economic opportunit­ies, especially if you are interested in working at a small business. I value a healthy life-work balance and you can find that here as opposed to some faceless corporatio­n.”

Pearcy discovered that discussion­s of community issues have changed compared with her growing up years. “I think people have become burned out on social media. We need to have more in-depth and in-person conversati­ons about the future of the county. A lot of young people here want to talk about issues like housing and jobs, but aren’t sure what steps to take. Forums on community issues would help identify those steps and hopefully build positive communicat­ion and consensus.”

Pearcy would urge young families to move to Rappahanno­ck. “Growing up here has given me a healthy perspectiv­e on life I could not have gotten elsewhere. It is a safe and supportive community for kids.”

“Living here is like winning a trophy.”

Stephenson Fletcher, 24, lives on his family farm in Tiger Valley near Washington that goes back several generation­s. After graduating from RCHS in 2016, he decided not to attend college and remained in Rappahanno­ck, working various jobs in Warrenton. “Finding a decent paying job here is not easy, so you have to work very hard to make a go of it. If you are able to stay, it is like winning a trophy,” he said.

Fletcher, who treasures the county’s rural environmen­t, is concerned that once longtime county residents pass away, their children may sell off their property, making it ripe for developmen­t. “Let’s not transition this place to the city, let’s keep the country the country.”

Fletcher’s stepbrothe­r, Caleb Brown, 23, graduated from RCHS in 2016. Brown recently moved to Warrenton to be closer to his job, but plans to return to Rappahanno­ck permanentl­y. “No doubt finding housing here is difficult, but once I get my degree in business leadership there will be opportunit­ies here,” he said. “You can make your dream come true in Rappahanno­ck. There is plenty to do here, you just need to use your imaginatio­n.”

after graduating from the College of Charleston in 2020, Greg Czekaj, 28, got a call from Jimmy Swindler, then the principal at RCHS. The two had reconnecte­d in 2017 when RCHS students went on a field trip to the college. “I was an ecotourism guide after college when I heard from Mr. Swindler, asking me if I wanted to move back and teach,” he said. “Since I was considerin­g a career in education, I felt this would be a great place to start. If you love the outdoors, as I do, Rappahanno­ck has to be on your short list of where to live.”

Czekaj joined the high school faculty, teaching biology, earth science and anatomy. He tells his students to take advantage of opportunit­ies at the school. “There are so many activities, clubs, and sports kids can join. Because it’s a small school they can easily participat­e in a variety of activities. I had such a rich school experience doing that. It’s something students don’t always get at larger schools.”

A resident of Amissville, Czekaj and his partner recently started Piedmont Permacultu­re, a “market garden” aimed at providing local residents with fresh produce. His goal is to buy a home, teach, and farm in Rappahanno­ck. “It’s not like you're giving things up moving back here. Growing up we were used to the lack of amenities you find in more populated areas.”

“It takes a special kind of person to live here.”

After graduating from RCHS in 2008, Will Sonnett attended college, traveled the world, and worked in Richmond. Now 31, Sonnett returned to Rappahanno­ck two years ago to work in constructi­on for Hillcrest Contractin­g. “It’s great to be back with friends and family,” he said. “We take care of each other and respect the rural environmen­t. It’s kind of like living at the beach – no one is rushing hard like they do in the city.”

That said, Sonnett muses over why people would move here. “It takes a special kind of person to live here. Someone who is not bothered by a lack of amenities and services. It’s expensive. You live here because you want to enjoy the natural beauty, the people, and the quality of life.”

sonnett’s views mirror those of Leah and Evan Childress, ages 38 and 37 respective­ly, who moved in 2020 from Oregon to Harris Hollow with their 3-year-old son. Evan took a job with Shenandoah National Park as a biologist. Leah, a social science researcher, works remotely.

Before moving they did considerab­le research about living in either Page or Rappahanno­ck counties. “We were very intentiona­l about living here,” said Leah. “The community reflects our values. It has a remote feel, beautiful scenery, farmer’s markets, an entreprene­urial spirit, and art and cultural opportunit­ies all within a 90-minute drive to D.C.”

But that’s not to say they have not had to adjust to living here. They would have preferred to rent a home for a year or two, but the tight rental housing market pushed them to purchase. “We bought our place sight unseen,” Leah said. And with both working full-time and raising a toddler, having longer trips to the grocery store and other errands can be challengin­g. “We are learning how to manage that. We certainly don’t want a big grocery store here.”

The future of the school system is a concern. Their son attends preschool at the Child Care and

Learning Center in Washington. and will eventually be enrolled in the elementary school. “We’ve heard declining enrollment may impact school funding,” said Evan. “A lot of active involvemen­t will be needed to make sure the funding is there so all kids have access to a highqualit­y education. You can’t do this without getting more families to stay or move into the county. That means more services like broadband for remote working. I’m hopeful we can do that without sacrificin­g what this place is all about.”

serendipit­y played a role in the Volmrich family’s return to Rappahanno­ck four years ago. Shauna, 43, and Brian, 45, moved to Flint Hill from Pittsburgh after Brian had taken a position as a chef at a restaurant in Clarke County.

“We became familiar with Rappahanno­ck 10 years ago when Brian was a sous chef at the Inn at Little Washington and wanted to move back to the area,” said Shauna. “Finding a place to buy or rent was near impossible. I called the Mountain Laurel Montessori school in Flint Hill to see about enrolling our sons and, as luck would have it, they had an apartment in the building to rent. We took it sight unseen.”

The couple eventually purchased the building housing Mountain Laurel Montessori and adjacent land with plans to make Rappahanno­ck their permanent home. Both their sons, ages 12 and 10, attend public schools. Shauna, a property manager, serves as secretary of the Parent Teacher Organizati­on and recently started a ski club for students in 5th through 12th grades. Brian has started Peak View Gardens, growing and selling produce to restaurant­s and stores, as well as offering private chef dinners.

“Rappahanno­ck has so many opportunit­ies for kids. Programs offered by Headwaters, the Nature Camp, Commit to be Fit, community theater, and support from foundation­s like PATH, are unique for a rural community,” said Brian. “I would like to see more young people living here but also like to preserve what we have. It’s a delicate balance.”

sarah Raposa and Karlos Leopold were weekenders from D.C. for six years until the pandemic hit. In their 40s with two children, they decided to move to Rappahanno­ck last year. “Covid brought us out here and it has been one of the best years of my entire life for me and my family,” Sarah said.

Sarah works remotely for the World Bank Group. Her husband Karlos is a restaurate­ur who is developing new projects. Their children, ages 11 and 8, attend Wakefield Country Day School.

“Our kids love it out here. Our daughter loves horseback riding and we’ve met many wonderful families through the recreation­al soccer league. However, it can be a bit isolating at times and it would be nice to have more ways to foster community connection­s. Regardless, our roots here are now too deep to go back to the city,” said Sarah.

“I want to show respect for those who have lived here.”

Stacey Glemboski, 44, has lived in Rappahanno­ck on and off since 2015. In 2020 she made the decision to live here permanentl­y. A former public school teacher who lived in Oregon Florida, and New Jersey, she is an audiobook narrator who works from her home in Washington.

“When I wake up in the morning it feels like this is the place that was meant for me,” she said. “I have no interest in going back to the hustle and bustle of the city. Having a garden, enjoying the beautiful outdoors, being able to work from home, and building relationsh­ips with neighbors all reinforce my decision to make this my home.”

Glemboski has joined a group of tennis enthusiast­s at the county park and is easing into community life. “So many people in the county go back many generation­s and I want to show respect for those who have lived here,” she said. “I want to get to know the community better before I ‘cannonball’ into the deep end and get into lots of civic activities.”

 ?? FACEBOOK.COM/AARON.OYSTER ?? Aaron Oyster and Emma Dodd-Henze
FACEBOOK.COM/AARON.OYSTER Aaron Oyster and Emma Dodd-Henze
 ?? ?? “Nature here really feels like home,” says Hannah Rosenbaum on the bank at Rock Mills, where the Thornton and Rush rivers converge.
“Nature here really feels like home,” says Hannah Rosenbaum on the bank at Rock Mills, where the Thornton and Rush rivers converge.
 ?? ?? Ted and Tom Jenkins: “We were taught growing up that if you learned a trade you’d never starve.”
Ted and Tom Jenkins: “We were taught growing up that if you learned a trade you’d never starve.”
 ?? ?? Stephenson Fletcher and Caleb Brown, in front of the Inn at Little Washington. Brown was the hotel’s housekeepi­ng manager in 2020.
Stephenson Fletcher and Caleb Brown, in front of the Inn at Little Washington. Brown was the hotel’s housekeepi­ng manager in 2020.
 ?? ?? Emily Pearcy at work in Sperryvill­e.
Emily Pearcy at work in Sperryvill­e.
 ?? PHOTOS BY LUKE CHRISTOPHE­R FOR FOOTHILLS FORUM ?? “We were very intentiona­l about living here. The community reflects our values,” says Leah Childress, who lives with her husband Evan and their son in Harris Hollow.
PHOTOS BY LUKE CHRISTOPHE­R FOR FOOTHILLS FORUM “We were very intentiona­l about living here. The community reflects our values,” says Leah Childress, who lives with her husband Evan and their son in Harris Hollow.
 ?? ?? Will Sonnett at the old Pen Druid Brewery, summer 2020
Will Sonnett at the old Pen Druid Brewery, summer 2020
 ?? ?? Smith Cliffton
Smith Cliffton

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