Creating Pathways to Success in the Community of Robbins
The indomitable spirit of Clare Ruggles
By Crissy Neville » Photos by Mollie Tobias
Housed in the former Town of Robbins fire-and-rescue building that had fallen into disrepair, the 501 (c) (3) Northern Moore Family Resource Center (NMFRC) is now ablaze with new life and activity, developing strong families, healthy children and a caring community by matching resources with the needs of area residents. Fanning the flames of this mission is NMFRC executive director, Clare Ruggles, who for 14 years has led the center passionately and tirelessly with firewalls that break the barriers that geography, finances, education, language and economics impose. “For as long as I have been the director, we have had two main areas of focus,” she said. “ First, we support children in their education, and secondly, we work with the town of Robbins to improve economic conditions.”
“Before my arrival, the organization was doing an odd assortment of things and had operated in a few different locations. We gained our current building, the town’s old fire-and-rescue department location, in 2015 from a lease from the Town of Robbins for $1 per year. We remodeled it in three phases, with completion in 2018.”
“The Center had also gone through a transitional time in leadership, so when I arrived, NMFRC was a decade old. The Board agreed it was a good time to step back and consider what the greatest needs in Northern Moore county were in the present day. A needs assessment led the NMFRC board to the areas of education and economics.”
Ruggles has a hands-on approach to leadership and took it upon herself at that point to personally engage the stakeholders in Robbins to determine the next steps. First stop: The schools.
“I went to the principal at Robbins Elementary and said, ‘So I know there is a lot of stress on your school given current circumstances: 90% of the students here qualify for free or reduced lunch based on their family’s income, 65% are Hispanic and mostly ESL (English as a Second Language), and the school has a record of poor performance as a result of said demographics. So, how can we support you?’ She wanted us to start a free summer program to help prevent and reduce the effects of what she called the summer slide, so that is the first thing we did.”
Ruggles grew up in what she calls “fairly privileged circumstances” in suburban Houston, Texas, where she said, “there was not a lot of diversity ethnically, racially or socio-economically.” Her first exposure to diverse populations, including immigrants and impoverished peoples, was with grant writing for the organization Life Houston, a nourishment assistance program. The role served to be life-changing for Ruggles. Other stops on the road to Robbins were in public accounting, university administration, nonprofit leadership, creative writing, entrepreneurship, finance and business consulting. Each role fostered skills Ruggles uses at Northern Moore.
“Our first year, the NMFRC summer program served about 60 students, and it just grew from there. We did have to stop the program for three summers as we awaited the completion of renovations to our current building, but have been back in the running the last two years. We served 125 pre-K through 8th-graders in 2019. We also partnered with the Moore County Literacy Council for a literacy-intensive program assisting 45 more rising 1st- through 3rd-graders.”
The success of the summer program is one leg of what Ruggles calls the three-legged stool of programming she strives diligently to provide at Northern Moore. The center erected the second leg, afterschool programming, thanks to the grant support of a federally funded dropout prevention initiative. For six years, NMFRC served over 200 children in Robbins Elementary and Elise Middle Schools, where the staff provided students with homework assistance and academic support. Ruggles hopes to secure grant funding to restart this vital program soon.
The last leg is near and dear to Ruggles’ heart: Preschool education. Recognizing the need for greater access to early childhood education in the North Moore High School district, Ruggles led the drive to open HOPE ― Harnessing Opportunity, Promoting Education ― Academy in the fall of 2015. Currently serving 50 children ages 2 ½ through 5, the goal of HOPE Academy is to cultivate a love of learning so that each child will enter kindergarten eager and ready to learn.
“We recognized that the best chance of escaping poverty was getting an education, and there is a lot of data that supports the return of investment from an early childhood start. It is alarming to consider how many fewer words a child growing up in poverty has heard by the time they are 3-years-old as contrasted with children growing up in more affluent or educated households.”
The education focus at NMFRC extends to parents. Ruggles instituted grant-based programming for Latino mothers that provided activities for children and language lessons for the women. The Parent Educator class series, led by teachers and special presenters, offers workshops for parents and families on topics such as literacy, nutrition, finances and parenting skills.
The NMFRC celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2020 and with the celebration of the center’s educational accomplishments, Ruggles also reflects on the economic successes in which the center has played a part. These include helping to form the Robbins Civic Association; write EPA grants for the old mill site cleanup; start a homeownership program and Habitat for Humanity collaboration for housing insecure families; form a local “Little Free Library” program; complete a multifaceted community green space project, and annually operate Santa’s workshop to give families a helping hand at Christmas.
Talk of Christmas reminds Ruggles of the NMFRC’s seasonal event and also of northern Moore County’s biggest asset.
“A Potter’s Christmas is a fundraiser to support the NMFRC and it’s also a celebration of the pottery for which our area is known. We are sponsoring an exhibition at the Hastings Gallery in the Wood Library at Sandhills Community College that runs early November through early December, with a closing ticketed reception Dec. 5. The show features pottery donated to us that will be auctioned off at our anniversary celebration to be held April 17. We have a lot to celebrate after 25 years!”
The Northern Moore Family Resource Center is located at 116 Horner Street in Robbins. For more information, visit moorefamilyresource.org.