Changing the narrative

The Williamsburg Dukes (from left to right) Heather Cline ‘92, Jim Noctor, Michele Benson ‘93, John Jones III ‘05, Brandon Lapetina ‘08, Peg Noctor ‘79, Carmen Jones ‘05 ‘06M, Lewis Flanary ‘11, Kelly Pastirik ‘91, Kimberley Hundley ‘84, Milo (the dog)

On Jan. 6, Abby Zwerner (’19, ’20M) was seriously injured when a 6-year-old student shot her while she was teaching in her classroom at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia. The child brought the weapon from home in his bookbag.

Sadly, this narrative has become commonplace in the news. The shooting was the first U.S. school shooting of 2023 but the third incident of gun violence in the Newport News Public Schools in 17 months. It is also one of 16 U.S. school shootings since 1970 perpetrated by a child younger than 10 years old.


For the members of the Williamsburg Alumni Chapter, comprised primarily of teachers, this shooting wasn’t just another statistic; the narrative hit close to home.

“I’ve never met Abby, but I’m a JMU Education major,” said Heather Cline (’93), a kindergarten teacher of 30 years and alumni chapter member. “Many of my friends are JMU Education majors. My daughter is a JMU Education major. I have mentored many JMU Education majors. What happened to Abby could have happened to any one of us. In a situation that is so negative, I wanted to help bring something positive to the children in our community in her honor.” 

From a desire to turn a negative into a positive, Abby’s Book Club was born.

The concept was simple. Participants could purchase books from an Amazon registry and have them shipped to a central location for the alumni chapter to distribute to area schools. Once the wish list was created and shared, books started flooding in.

Curated by the chapter and fellow teachers, Abby’s Book Club includes titles such as The Color Monster, One Drop of Kindness, Don’t Feed the Worry Bug and, for JMU fans, The World Needs More Purple People.

Centered around the themes of kindness, empathy and compassion, these books can help children better navigate their world and understand others who are different. The Williamsburg Dukes hope the books donated through Abby’s Book Club will serve as tools teachers can use in their classrooms to promote social-emotional learning for years to come.

On March 4, chapter members unpacked and sorted the donated books. As part of the process, they affixed a sticker inside the cover of each book that read, “Abby’s Book Club: Kindness is a gift everyone can afford to give. Organized by the Williamsburg Dukes.”

book_group_2.jpgCarmen Jones (’05, ’06M), chapter president and special education teacher of 17 years, hopes that Abby’s Book Club will have a long legacy.

“The goal of Abby’s Book Club was to find a way to put a positive impact on the community after such a horrible situation, and we didn’t want it to just be a one-time thing. Books last a lifetime,” Jones said. “And years down the road, students may not know what Abby’s Book Club is, but the books will still serve as a resource. And hopefully it will be a book a child makes a connection to, helps them realize their feelings are valid and gives them tools to help them handle their emotions appropriately.”

Abby’s Book Club has distributed a total of 615 books to 48 schools in the local and surrounding area. Books were donated from 250-plus individuals living across 14 states.


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by Jessica Savoie (’14, ’20M)

Published: Monday, April 10, 2023

Last Updated: Thursday, April 25, 2024

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