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A sacred message on sacred bricks

Lamonda Thompson and Joy VanDyke have been working at Forest City-Dunbar Elementary in Rutherford County Schools for more than eight years together. They knew each other in high school, both attending East Rutherford, and after college, they reconnected.

VanDyke jokes that they “share one brain,” and Thompson adds, “We go hard no matter what we’re doing.” These two educators are friends inside and outside the classroom. Enthusiasm for their profession radiates off of them, especially while they are together.

Forest City – Dunbar Elementary school sign. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

When school buildings closed in March for North Carolina students, Thompson and VanDyke agreed that what they missed the most was daily classroom interactions with kids. They are both fifth grade teachers, and their students head to middle school after their time together, so they wouldn’t see them in the halls if school were to return to normal for the next year.

The 2020 school year finished with a parade of cars coming through the school parking lot for a graduation certificate and other end-of-year items. “They [the students] sat in the car and cried, and we cried from six feet away on the outside. And it was just so unreal to not be able to hug them and comfort them, you know, in the way that we’re used to doing it,” said VanDyke.

For educators, students, and many others, this summer was different from years past. The pandemic tainted what would normally be a respite for teachers as uncertainty for what the 2020 – 2021 school year would look like grew. For those in Forest City, the summer also brought tragedy.

CHANGE in Forest City

On June 23, a young girl was shot in a drive-by shooting in Forest City and later passed away. She was a rising second-grader at Forest City-Dunbar. Amid the pandemic in an increasingly divided nation, the community mourned.

Thompson had a family member pass away due to gun violence in 2012. The issue has always rested heavy on the hearts of her and her husband, Garrett Thompson. They wanted to express hope while drawing attention to the importance of conversation. VanDyke remembers Garrett repeatedly saying, “I want to unify this community.” The Thompsons wanted to inspire change, and realized they had a underutilized platform.

Lamonda and Garret own a building off a main street in downtown Forest City. One side of it had a large face of untouched bricks, and they commissioned an artist, Shane Pierce out of Charlotte, to create a mural that would represent all the things they were feeling. The Thompsons wanted it to be for everyone and not symbolize one cause. It was a message to create action, whatever that may be, to make a better way forward.

Pierce, who goes by the name Abstract Dissent, has painted other inspired murals throughout North Carolina. In October 2018, he heard of the Butler High School shooting and called the school to see if he could use his art to help.

In this Charlotte Observer piece, Principal John LeGrand says, “He stepped in, literally, at the school’s darkest hour and was able to produce something to help us start to heal. It kind of marked a new beginning, new hope and new unity. If we’re going to get through this, we’re all going to have to come together. That’s what it represented.”

Lamonda praises Garrett for the idea. He worked with Pierce about what he wanted the overall feeling of the mural to be, but let the artist do what inspired him. The result is a mural with the word CHANGE and a child’s face in the background. Purposefully, the child is no one in particular, but represents youth.

Lamonda looks at it and thinks, “We have to change for our future.”

Lamonda Thompson’s son at the CHANGE mural on the side of her and husband Garret Thompson’s building in Forest City. Courtesy of Lamonda Thompson

Thompson and VanDyke say the reaction from the beginning was overwhelming. People from all races, religions, political affiliations, and backgrounds in the community have come out to support the message.

However, after commissioning the mural, and while it was being painted, the Thompsons became aware of their building’s historic designation. Facing a fine and removal, the Thompsons asked Pierce to finish the piece. The writing was already on the wall.

“Change for one person may look one way. But you know, change for someone else might be something totally different. But the beauty of the word change, it’s something that we can all benefit from.”

Lamonda Thompson, fifth grade teacher at Forest City-Dunbar Elementary
CHANGE mural in Forest City, NC. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Thompson wishes she would have known of the historical designation, because she would have gone through the appropriate channels. She appreciates the town council’s willingness for heartfelt dialogue around the mural. Currently, the family is working with the town to see how they can meet in the middle.

As word of the mural spread, VanDyke and Thompson realized there was another opportunity emerging. People wanted to wear the message, so they started printing shirts with Pierce’s permission.

Lamonda Thompson, left, and Joy VanDyke with a CHANGE shirt on, benefiting the Game Changer scholarship. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Again, they were overwhelmed by the response. They ran out of prints and restocked, sending shirts as far away as Washington state. They have taken the profits, more than $3,000 so far, and put it into a scholarship for a high school senior in Rutherford County Schools.

“I love what we can do now … sit with high school seniors and talk to them about [and ask], OK, how are you going to be a game changer? – Joy VanDyke, fifth grade teacher at Forest City-Dunbar Elementary

The scholarship shows students that age doesn’t have to be a factor in being a game changer. VanDyke hopes the scholarship will encourage students to not complain about things to one another, or on social media, but to actively engage in making a change in those things that bother them. She looks forward to asking students,”What do you see in the community that you could address?”

“We want them to understand that even at 18, you know, they have the power to make a huge difference.”

Joy VanDyke, fifth grade teacher at Forest City-Dunbar Elementary
Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is a multimedia storyteller for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, and STEM education.