Local business owners create safe havens in schools.
On April 20, a shotgun blast rang out as a bullet pierced the door of room 212 inside Forest High School. Once the chaos settled, the room was all but deserted.
“The room was empty after the shooting incident and not being used for anything,” says Elizabeth Brown, principal of Forest High. “Quite frankly, the students didn’t want to be in the vicinity of that room. We needed to do something to rebuild a positive atmosphere.”
Ron “Rondo” Fernandez, owner of The Mojo Grill & Catering Co., grew up seeing his fellow students in need. As an adult, he is hoping to change that.
“Growing up, I was exposed to a lot of rural poverty,” says Fernandez. “It has always been on my heart to impact kids if I ever had the ability. We decided schools would be a central location where kids could come and have their needs met.”
Today, Fernandez and his wife, Toby, are converting classrooms into The Rock rooms as part of their “Feed The Need” Outreach Ocala Foundation. These rooms offer students in need school supplies, food, toiletries, feminine hygiene products, clothing and even washers and dryers to do their laundry. The Rock provides for about 250 students each day.
Lake Weir High School, North Marion High School, Marion Technical Institute and Belleview Middle School are all home to The Rock rooms. Brown was previously principal of North Marion High and saw the positive impact of The Rock there. She knew it could bring new life to room 212 and her students.
“We call it The Rock because it’s intended to be a foundation these kids can rely on,” Fernandez explains. The Rocks are staffed full-time by community volunteers who are available to support students during the school day, help them find what they need and listen when they need a kind ear.
“It’s no longer the room where the shooting happened; it’s the room where hope happens,” says Fernandez. “We try to give them hope for the future by giving them power in the present. I like to think if The Rock had been at Forest last year, maybe the shooting wouldn’t have happened. There would have been someone there to talk to him and hear him.”
As for the students, Mrs. Brown says they truly appreciate the positivity The Rock has brought back to their school.
“They talk about how they enjoy going in there and hanging out,” she says. “So many students visit it each day we’ve had to bring in extra volunteers. Students know they can be accepted there if they need clothing, hygiene or food, but at Forest the biggest purpose The Rock has served is healing. It has helped us all heal from the shooting because we can come together there and have a feeling of strength.”
Supplies for The Rock rooms are provided by fundraisers and donation drives. For updates on The Rock or make a donation, visit facebook.com/therockprogram.