By Bill Sterling –
What began as a Christmas present to her husband who had all the “toys” he needed has become a technology room at the Eastern Shore Boys & Girls Club that will open up a whole new world to the club members.
“I wanted to do something meaningful, not just give another present that would soon be forgotten,” said Kesha Pettit recently, talking about the gift she gave her husband Ashley last Christmas. “We came up with the idea of providing computers to the members of the Boys & Girls Club, and the concept took off to where now we have a technology and resource room at the club. And this is only the beginning. We want to provide instruction and add to the room.”
The room is named for Ashley’s parents, Elaine Hall and Chester Pettit Jr., both educators who taught on the Eastern Shore. A dedication ceremony and banquet at the Mary N. Smith Cultural Enrichment Center, home of the club, in early May was attended by family members and supporters of the project and honored the late Elaine and Chester Pettit Jr.
Among the speakers that night were the Rev. Clarence Pettit, the only surviving sibling of Chester Pettit Jr., and Dr. Larrissa Pettit, a niece of Chester Pettit Jr.
The Rev. Pettit talked of how his brother attended Maryland State College (now University of Maryland, Eastern Shore) despite the family’s limited income, taking food packed by their mother when he made his trips to college. “It was a struggle, but my parents raised and educated five children working 10 acres of land.”
Chester Pettit Jr., who taught at T.C. Walker and Worcester Technical Institute, died at the age of 52 when Ashley was only 10. Elaine Pettit taught 22 years at T.C. Walker and Accomac Primary School and died in 2020.
“Obviously, I didn’t know Ashley’s father, but I knew Mrs. Pettit, and she was an amazing woman who valued education highly,” said Kesha.
Ashley Pettit is president of Triangle Enterprises Inc., the rental real estate/development company that was started by his parents in 1972. Triangle Enterprises sponsored the banquet and oversaw the renovation of the classroom, converting it into a technology and resource lab. Triangle Enterprises also presented $1,000 in loving memory of Chester and Elaine Hall Pettit. Ashley recalls his mother often saying, “Everything you do and make can not be for yourself.”
Friends Step Up to Support the Project
Before there was ever a thought about purchasing a computer, the classroom at the club had to be rewired to accommodate the equipment. “I think there were two electrical outlets in that room,” said Ashley. “It was a major renovation that included significant rewiring.”
The Mary N. Smith facility was built in 1953 as the primary high school for African-Americans until 1970, then later served as a middle school after integration and was closed in 2004. The building was rapidly deteriorating before being taken over by a group of MNS alumni in 2011.
Ashley attended middle school at MNS, but Kesha, a native of Mississippi, who is a retention specialist at Perdue Foods, said not being from the Shore didn’t hold her back when the couple sought funds for the project after making a substantial donation themselves.
“Ashley texted a lot of friends and business acquaintances and got an immediate response,” she said. “I went out and talked to people. I am not into telling people what we don’t have. I am interested in furnishing the needs and creating a space for learning. My approach is to make a connection, show a commitment and then maintain communication.”
An old classroom was transformed to a sparkling technology and computer lab with the help of area construction, electrical, and IT companies coordinated by Ashley and finished just prior to the dedication ceremony with a strong push at the end.
Kesha, a member of the Boys & Girls Club Advisory Board whose passion for the project shines through when she talks about it, explained, “We didn’t want people to come to the banquet and hear us talk about this vision after they had made donations. We wanted them to see a space ready to be used by our club members.”
Colby West, another member of the Boys & Girls Club Advisory Board and also an active member of the Mary N, Smith Alumni Association, was visibly emotional after walking into the room for the first time. “I’ve dreamed of something like this for a long time, but now seeing this brings tears to my eyes,” said West.
Hoping Others Will Follow
The Pettits hope this is the first of several spaces that can be renovated to better serve the club and the community at Mary N. Smith. “This is about the legacy of the Pettit family that values education,” said Ashley. “We hope it inspires other families to honor their loved ones in some way and also build a better future for our kids.”
The Pettits’ next focus is on phase two. Individuals who want to help can contribute funds to purchase Chrome Books, costing about $250 each, which will be used to supplement the computer and work stations now in the new technology room.
Ashley and Kesha’s 15-year-old daughter, Layla, is a volunteer at the club, where club members attend an after-school program that provides a hot meal, academic tutoring, fine arts, and supervised athletic activities. The new technology room will be an additional asset where chess will also be taught online in addition to having the Smart Girl program and other academic and well-being programs offered to club members.
Javon Smith, a Boys & Girls Club Advisory Board member who maintains a visible presence at the club, says, “We hope that the Pettits’ contributions will influence more families to want to fix up other classrooms to help fit the kids needs with a long-term goal of all of the classrooms being named after families who have chosen to support the Boys & Girls Club. Because of the C&E Technology Room we will be able to expand our programs and increase membership beginning with the summer program which starts this June.”
The mission of the Boys & Girls Club is important to our society today: “To enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.”
Beginning in 2005, when the club first met in a rented building in Exmore, the Boys & Girls Club has been changing lives by teaching youth to make decisions that lead to academic success, a healthy lifestyle, and good life choices.
Destiny Carrington, a club member for seven years, recently won Youth of the Year in competition with other club members in the Southeastern Region and then finished runner-up in the state, earning scholarship funds toward her attending Longwood University in hopes of becoming either a nurse practitioner or physician assistant.
Carrington received additional college funds through the Love and Legacy Scholarships presented by the Pettit family at the dedication of the Technology and Resource Lab. The scholarships, made in memory of Darnell Robert Charles Thompson, the late son of Dr. Larissa Pettit, and Katherine Hall Claude, the late mother of Rachael Hall, will be available each year to Boys & Girls Club members as well as other qualifying students.
“We want to reward positive behavior and accomplishments,” said Kesha in announcing the scholarships. “Destiny is a shining example of the difference the Boys & Girls Club can make in a life.”
To register for the summer or fall program or for more information, contact Eastern Shore Boys & Girls Club director Kathy Custis at 757-709-3038 or email [email protected].
To make a financial contribution to the club, send a check payable to the Boys & Girls Club of the Eastern Shore and mail to P.O. Box 101, Melfa, VA 23410
To make a financial contribution to the Pettit family to help with phase two of the C&E Technology Room, contact Ashley Pettit at 757-302-3222 or Kesha Pettit at 757-709-8056.