Photograph by Gordon Schmidt

“They’re my heart,” says Kelly Wease Chenault, W’91.

She’s talking about the first- through fifth-graders she works with weekly at Cashell Donahoe Elementary School in eastern Henrico, Virginia.

Donahoe Elementary is a Title I school, meaning it’s been identified by the U.S. Department of Education as having a high percentage of students from low-income families. Title I schools like Donahoe receive supplemental funding to help struggling students meet the state academic standards. While these schools have many of the same teaching resources as any other school, one thing they’re often lacking is adult mentors in the classrooms.

That’s where Chenault comes in. She founded #TheALEXProject, a program that matches an adult volunteer with each classroom at Donahoe Elementary to mentor and build positive relationships with students. Named in memory of friend Alex Moore, who died in June 2015, ALEX stands for “Actively Loving & Encouraging Xcellence.”

An “ALEX,” as the volunteers are called, spends at least one hour per week in the classroom — many of them far more — supporting the teacher and encouraging the students to be the best they can be by working as hard as possible on their daily tasks.

“We just love them,” Chenault says. “And we just encourage them. We show them that we believe in them.”

Another element is steady fundraising. In recent years, Chenault has raised approximately $5,000 a year for the school through social media. The money goes toward purchasing books, funding field trips for students who need help, and buying classroom supplies for the teachers, whom Chenault calls the real heroes of the school.

“I have so much respect for them,” Chenault says. “Not only do they have to meet the same state teaching requirements as any teacher anywhere, they’re often meeting social needs, nutritional needs, and emotional needs. It’s unbelievable.”

The program is having a big impact on the students. In June 2017, just a little more than a year after the start of #TheALEXProject, Donahoe Elementary became state-accredited for the first time in 40 years. #TheALEXProject wasn’t solely responsible, of course, but the school’s superintendent gave it some of the credit.

“It was rewarding to know that the extra bodies, the extra encouragement, helped to make that happen,” Chenault says.

Chenault’s daughter Courtney, ’19, knows firsthand the impact that the program is having. The leadership studies and political science double major takes time away from campus to be an ALEX herself.

“Education, starting in elementary school, lays the foundation for everything you do,” Courtney says. “Having an increased number of adults inside the school showing the students that they care and want to see them succeed is really impactful for them.”

The experience has been impactful for Courtney, too. As a result of her involvement with the program, she has decided to pursue a teaching career, specifically at a Title I school.