If the old axiom is true that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” then I must admit to my fair share of paving when it comes to recording the history of Ambleside School of Ocala. Like God’s command to the Israelites in Joshua 4 to take twelve stones from the Jordan River and pile them up on the promised land side as a sign to future generations of God’s presence, power, and faithfulness (Joshua 4:1-9), I’ve intended to record the significant events that, had they not occurred, Ambleside Ocala as we know it today would not exist. This simple blog post is my attempt to “pile some stones” so that all those who know and love Ambleside now and those who will join our community in the future may have something to point to remember just how God showed up and helped our little school survive and then thrive.
The first story goes back to the very genesis of our existence. In the Fall of 2005, we attempted to start the school but failed to secure all of what we called the Three Critical F’s – Facility, Families & Faculty – necessary to begin. Then we found ourselves heading into 2006 with the distinct possibility of repeating our failings of 2005. We finally had a facility and scraped together eight students (half of which were immediate family) but we had no faculty. I recall getting to the end of our own efforts, and facing the stark reality of another failed start, we prayed in the 11th hour, “God, if you want his little school to happen you have to bring us a person who knows our philosophy and can be our principal and main teacher, and you have to do this within our looming deadline, and if not we’ll take it as a sign that this isn’t going to happen.” Shortly thereafter we received a call from Maryellen St. Cyr of Ambleside Schools International (ASI). She said that they had just heard from an educator in Illinois who was familiar with Charlotte Mason’s pedagogy and wanted to be a part of a school that was practicing it; furthermore, this person had extensive experience as both an administrator and a teacher, spoke Spanish (the foreign language we had in the curriculum), and was looking to make a move to Florida. This woman inquired of Maryellen, “Are there any opportunities available in that State?” As our dear friend Jerry Lacefield would say, “Are you kidding me?!” (Incidentally, Jerry is the husband of 4th Grade teacher, Valarie Lacefield. Their family was the first to join the school after our initial opening). And so, in a way that only God could orchestrate, Susan Carrion arrived to be the first-ever faculty member, principal, and teacher at Ambleside School of Ocala. To this day she remains a part of the Ambleside family working with ASI to mentor and encourage families who are seeking to implement our curriculum in a homeschool environment.
The other story I would like to tell takes us to 2008 and the beginning of the Great Recession. At the time we were a school of only 24 students and as such had not yet reached financial sustainability. This was a very precarious place to be while staring into the abyss of the worst economy since the Great Depression. As our Board surveyed our financial position and contemplated a looming deficit of $120,000 (our entire budget at the time was barely twice that amount), we came to the hard but inevitable decision that we could not in good conscience carry on the work of the school while accruing such a huge deficit. It was unsustainable, unwise and cut against the grain of our collective understanding of good stewardship. The board took a vote and unanimously decided to close down the school. (Yes, that actually happened!). Fortuitously, I immediately called my brother, Jimmy Gooding, whose daughter Ausley Gooding was a student at the school, and told him the bad news. He quickly said, “Wait, don’t conclude that meeting, I’ll be there immediately.” And within minutes he was sitting with the board and pleading with us to reconsider and pledging his personal support, both time and treasure, to see if there were a possibility of saving the school. So the board decided to temporarily suspend the closing and collectively take the next 48 hours to fast, pray and ask God to provide. Keep in mind, this was at the height of the worst economy any of us had ever seen. Our prospects were dim, to say the least. Yet we fasted; we prayed, and we reached out to the few people we knew who might have an interest in seeing the school survive. In the following 48 hours, we received, from just a smattering of concerned friends and family members, the commitment of $140,000 to save the school! To this day still the largest single fundraising event the school has ever experienced. I still get emotional when I reflect on this particular “pile of rocks” in our past. God so clearly showed up and provided a way forward when we had no will or imagination for how it could happen.
I could go on and recount other significant “piles of rocks”, and there are many, but I will save those for another day. As I conclude, my mind drifts back to those early days and the quiet, often unnoticed influence of a handful of initial board members that were significant to our very existence. I think of our very first Board Member, Kris Clements, who stood in our kitchen and listened while Shari lamented “there is nobody in this community that embraces these ideas” and gently and simply responded, “Nobody, yet.” She was right. And to this day Kris remains a faithful, behind the scenes advocate of the school with her wisdom, words of encouragement and generosity – a generosity that was instrumental in the starting of the High School.
And I think of Dave and Betty Werner whose grandson Jonas was one of the original 8 students. Dave, in hopes of being invited to join the work on the Board of Directors, cleared his busy schedule as a local banker to make room just in case he was asked to serve. He and Betty went on to become bedrocks of stability, wisdom, generosity, and service that undergirded the work in those formative years.
My mind is awash in gratitude and joy as I recount these events and people. Gratitude for the privilege of being invited on this amazing journey of faith. And joy as I reflect on all the relationships, the lessons learned, the faith that has been stretched and molded and the good that has been done in so, so many lives through this wonderful little place we call Ambleside.