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A student team in the Executive MBA program helped fill the shelves of a school library as part of a community engagement project.

By Joan Tupponce

As part of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program, each cohort must complete a community engagement project that helps a nonprofit address a challenge. This year’s team did more than fulfill its assignment: It helped fill the shelves of a school library.

“The teams are required to work with a community partner to collect data and interpret it, but they are not required in these projects to find a final solution. However, this team went above and beyond,” said “Butch” M.K. Sarma, director of the Executive MBA program in VCU’s School of Business.

Rise Academy, part of the nonprofit Rise Richmond, is an independent Christian high school in the city’s East End. MBA team co-leader James Crump-Wallace, who owns The Spot RVA creative space and the Secret Supper Society dining experience company, made the connection with Rise, and once the team heard about the academy’s challenges, it agreed to focus on developing the school library.

“The space we have is fine, but it’s not set up like a library,” said Brittany Lopes, Ed.D., the academy’s principal. “It’s not organized. There is no checkout system. It has no functionality.”

Lopes, who joined Rise last summer after more than a decade with Chesterfield County Public Schools, also wanted to acquire relevant, culturally engaging books for the academy’s library. “When the VCU team contacted me, it was the right time,” she said.

The MBA team devised a plan for the small cinderblock library space after surveying parents, teachers, students and the school administration.

“We used those questions to base how we would get a library with the best use of space,” said team member Kayla Hayes, who works as executive director of Shenandoah Oncology in Winchester. “We asked the kids for ideas as to what the library should look like, including colors and office hours.”

But the team had designs on more than just the design. It helped secure the donation of 54 books to the school.

“It was a no-brainer for us,” Hayes said. “I love to read, and my kids love to read. I wanted the kids at the school to feel the same excitement. The biggest thing was giving the kids the love of reading that each of us has individually.”

The team asked Lopes for a list of books the school wanted. Hayes then built out an Amazon wish list that was provided to family, friends and work colleagues as well as team members.

“We thought the extra step could be valuable to the academy,” Crump-Wallace said. “We wanted to make an impact beyond the project.”

Providing books was especially meaningful for MBA team project manager Jamie Mayberry, executive director of software engineering for Comcast Xfinity in Richmond. During his fourth-grade year, he moved to a school that focused on reading.

“That fundamentally changed my education and path for life,” Mayberry said.

Rise’s administration was completely surprised and delighted by the donation of books in addition to the plan to reconfigure the space for a library.

“There was a video of us crying on Zoom,” Lopes said. “The team gave me the opportunity to focus on other things than the library space, and that took some work off my plate. That was such a big thing.”

She was touched by the team’s kindness and its interest in the students and literacy.

“They also cared about the kind of books students are interested in,” Lopes said. “As a first-year principal, it meant the gift of time and a plan that is written out that I can implement.”

Sarma, the MBA program director, also took pride in the team’s dedication.

“I’m really impressed with what they did,” he said.

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