From the April 2013 Cathedral Connection

Jennifer Ramming is a study in determination. An adopted child, she was taught to love any and all, regardless of origin or perceived potential. She was in foster care as a baby because it was feared she might not walk, but she proved them wrong, becoming a high school and college sprinter. And she’s still a runner, though today she’s more likely to be found running children to and fro, and that goes for more than her own three boys.

“It’s been a little joke in my family that I don’t walk, I run,” said Jennifer. “I owe everything to my parents who opened all the doors in the world to me. I am also firmly rooted in my faith in God and ‘all things seen and unseen,’ and this has become glaringly evident to me through the process of founding OpenDoors of Asheville.”

OpenDoors helps local at-risk kids by connecting them with education and enrichment opportunities. Volunteers provide mentorship and often transportation. Donors fund scholarships, after school programs, and fees and equipment for extracurricular activities.

Jennifer and co-founder Kendra Sherrod launched OpenDoors in December 2009. A few years before, Jennifer and her husband had begun helping her eldest son’s friend, an inner-city kid who was severely dyslexic. She is a firm believer that properly nurtured, learning-disabled kids can go from special education classes to testing at an above-average IQ. In fact, kids with learning disabilities often have above average IQ, especially those who fall into the spectrum of dyslexia. The problem is that they don’t always get properly diagnosed. Given the right learning tools their intelligence can shine through.

“With the right interventions (and lots of love, healthy snacks, and enrichment activities), kids with learning disabilities can go from low average assessment scores to high scores. I don’t really put much weight on traditional IQ scoring. It’s an antiquated tool and concept. All kids have a gift and it’s our job to uncover it.”

“While OpenDoors is meeting all the necessary standards of excellence for a non-profit, we also endeavor to be what we believe neighbors or fellow community members should be – helpful, kind, non-judgmental, flexible, thoughtful and vigilant. It’s a new way of looking at serving the community, and it is very personal to us and to the families we help support.”

 More than 250 individual donors and more than 50 businesses and family foundations donate to the scholarship, tutoring, enrichment and emergency funds for the families OpenDoors serves. The organization cannot take tax deductible donations that are specific to an individual child, so when someone donates, those funds go into the general operating budget and the board and committees decide what the priorities are. The organization also boasts about 70 volunteers.

Professional tutoring, tuition, sports, arts, music, field trips, travel, equipment and school supplies, food, emergency funds to prevent eviction or help pay winter utilities, clothing, medical prescriptions – all are in the mix of resources provided at OpenDoors.

“That’s the best way to describe what we do. We help parents in generational poverty do for their kids what middle class parents do, and hopefully that helps break the cycle of poverty by giving kids the opportunities, skills and resources to jump the curb.”

The staff at OpenDoors makes new connections all the time. “The only limitations are our financial and human resources. We are very cautious about who works with our students, but we are always looking for inspired tutors and team leaders. The way we grow is very organic, which is why one of our criteria for selection is that a child is easily accessible by our existing network of support. We don’t want to reach out too far and not be able to support both the child and the volunteers with enough resources. We are very serious about wrapping the whole child, and that is very time and money intensive. It’s not about how many kids we can serve, but how far can we take them? We don’t only take kids who have learning differences, nor do we cherry pick the ones who seem to have the best chance of making it through their diploma. It’s really about aligning the available resources with the identified need, and the potential for success is very relationship- and resource-based.”

With a bachelor’s degree in sociology and public relations, Jennifer had been a development director and major donor specialist for several non-profits before taking the reins as executive director of OpenDoors. She has served on the boards for Women Helping Battered Women, Woodswomen, OurVOICE, Buncombe County Medical Society Alliance, and currently serves on the Board of Children First. 

“It’s hard work to build honest relationships in communities of diversity, and it’s necessary to stick your neck out to cross those economic and cultural boundaries. You’ve got to be willing to get uncomfortable, on both sides. I think our supporting and supported families are both very brave to enter into non-traditional relationships and to take risks and see what else is out there. It’s amazing the places you can find laughter, love, acceptance and shared experiences.”

Jennifer concluded, “If I can retire one day and know for certain that I permanently changed one child’s trajectory from a path to incarceration to a path to education and inspired productivity, I will be satisfied.”