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Community works to support high school seniors in pandemic

"We just want to put a smile on these seniors' faces and let them know that we are proud of them," Lena Ruhland said.
Credit: AP
Valerie Johnson prepares a care package for her adoptive senior at her home in Spout Spring, Va., on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. The Central Virginia community is working to ensure the Class of 2021 feels supported and encouraged to get through this unusual senior year. Lena Ruhland, parent to a Brookville High School senior, created an “Adopt a Senior” Facebook page earlier this month to help connect community members and parents to Class of 2021 seniors in the area. (Kendall Warner/The News & Advance via AP)

LYNCHBURG, Va. — The Central Virginia community is working to ensure the Class of 2021 feels supported and encouraged to get through this unusual senior year.

Lena Ruhland, parent to a Brookville High School senior, created an "Adopt a Senior" Facebook page earlier this month to help connect community members and parents to the Class of 2021 seniors in the area. As the name suggests, community members can "adopt" a senior and help encourage them through their difficult and different senior year by sending care packages or messages.

Ruhland said the pandemic has really affected this year's graduating class through both their junior and senior years — with junior prom, college tours, sports seasons and school schedules all being canceled or modified.

"I felt like they deserved some recognition," Ruhland said. "And just something to look forward to."

Ruhland's son graduated last year and was inspired by the support the Class of 2020 received from school divisions and the community. Ruhland said she joined an "Adopt a Senior" Facebook group last year with participants from across the state. When she didn't hear about a statewide group this year, she felt the need to create a local one.

"We just want to put a smile on these seniors' faces and let them know that we are proud of them," Ruhland said.

The page garnered more than 250 members in the first day it was live. More than 900 parents, seniors and community members from Lynchburg and the surrounding counties have since joined the group.

McKinsey Ruhland, Lena Ruhland's daughter and 17-year-old Brookville High School senior, said she was in awe of the instant support the group got from the community.

"It's really uplifting just knowing that we're being recognized and that the community isn't just forgetting about us," McKinsey said. "They're showing us that we're not alone."

McKinsey said she's been attending school virtually this year and only gets to see her classmates when she goes to school for soccer or track practice. This year hasn't been what she pictured it would be, McKinsey said, but the community's support will be a highlight.

Brooke Laughlin, a senior at Liberty High School, said she's a member of the Facebook group and has enjoyed getting to see other seniors from the area hearing their stories and watching them get adopted.

"It's just really special," Brooke said.

Amy Laughlin, Brooke's mom, said she helped Lena Ruhland promote the page in some other groups on Facebook and has been helping coordinate between seniors and community members looking to "adopt."

Amy Laughlin said the community rallied around the Class of 2020 because the pandemic had just begun and they were missing out on so much. Now that many people are more used to the pandemic and its effects, she didn't want the Class of 2021 and all they're missing out on to be forgotten about.

"We just want them to know that we're thinking about them, that's the big goal," Amy Laughlin said.

Amy Laughlin said community members don't have to be a parent to a senior or even personally know a senior in order to get involved.

Valerie Johnson, parent to an Appomattox senior, said community members can read posts on the page where high school seniors will share a bit about themselves, the sports they play or their plans for after graduation, and find a senior they really connect with.

Johnson, an Amherst County High School graduate, said she was scrolling through the page and found an Amherst senior she used to coach in little league cheerleading in Amherst County.

"It's also just a cool way to get connected with students and families all across the area," Johnson said.

Stephanie Vass's daughter, Mackenzie Vass, is a senior at Brookville High School who took extra classes in order to skip her junior year. Mackenzie is dually enrolled at Central Virginia Community College and is participating in her high school and college classes virtually.

"I just feel so bad that she worked so hard to skip a grade and finish up high school early and this is what her senior year looks like," Stephanie Vass said.

Stephanie Vass said she also participated in the "Adopt a Senior" group last year and loved giving her adopted senior — one of Mackenzie's close friends — something to look forward to.

"I'm looking forward to seeing what the community is going to do for us this year," Mackenzie Vass said. "We've just missed out on so much and I think it'll be encouraging to see the community support us."

This year, Stephanie Vass is adopting a senior at Liberty High School in Bedford County and said she's loved getting to see parents and community members from across the Central Virginia area all come together for the Class of 2021, regardless of the school or division they're in.

Community members, parents or seniors can join the group by searching "Central Virginia 'Adopt a Senior' Class of 2021" on Facebook.