WAYNESBORO — Debra Freeman-Belle is running for her second term on Waynesboro School Board in November’s election.
“I kind of feel like I’m in a full-circle moment,” she said. Freeman-Belle grew up in Waynesboro, participated in activities at Waynesboro YMCA, assisted with childcare at the Office on Youth, and graduated Waynesboro High School. “I almost didn’t graduate.”
Freeman-Belle’s father died of cancer when she was 16 years old. The loss turned her life upside down. She went from being an honor roll student to attending the school system’s alternative program her senior year of high school. With the help of mentors, like Jeff Fife, executive director of the YMCA, and teachers, she got her life back on track.
“When I was a teenager and I was showing them the worst of Debra, they still saw the best in Debra,” she said.
She attended Blue Ridge Community College and considered a career as a pediatrician. She studied business administration at Mountwest Community and Technical College in West Virginia. While she did not earn her degree, she met her husband, Rob, and the couple have three children. She and her family moved to Waynesboro in 2013 after she had been away for 12 years. Her oldest child will be a freshman at Waynesboro High, and her other children in 7th and 6th grades.
In 2014, Freeman-Belle became interim executive director of Waynesboro Area Refuge Ministry (WARM), and director the following year. In March of this year, she became executive director of the Boys and Girls Club.
“The transition was really to get more work/life balance,” Freeman-Belle said of her career move. Her husband still works for WARM, and it was time for one of them to have a job where they could be home in the evenings.
For her, that new opportunity brought her back to her passion to work for children. She said she never expected the different paths of WARM and now the Boys and Girls Club to provide opportunities for her to impact the community. “It’s great to be somewhere you can see the impact and feel the impact.” At WARM she was really able to begin to use her skills as a grant writer. She has been nationally recognized for her grant writing.
Her children were in Boys and Girls Club before the pandemic. “I already knew the impact of the club, just never thought I’d be working there.”
Freeman-Belle, a certified case manager trained in Crisis Intervention and mental health, joined Waynesboro School Board in 2018. As executive director of WARM, she had met with Waynesboro Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Cassell as a community member. He told her that he liked how she thought of ideas to handle challenges that others did not consider. Serving on the school board would allow her to advocate for the school system, and another way to help children.
“I think this is probably the most interesting time to pick a first term,” she said of choosing to run in 2018, less than two years before a global pandemic would affect public school systems across the country.
However, she said the challenges in the last two years gave her opportunities to learn and to see challenges in a new way than she did before.
“I think that we’ve made a lot of progress with our building renovations and teacher compensation,” Freeman-Belle said of why she is running this year. She wants to see the results of the school board’s work that started during her first term, as well as be present to witness the social and emotional impact the pandemic may have on Waynesboro students.
If re-elected, Freeman-Belle is focused on renovations at Berkeley Glenn Elementary School and continuing renovations at Waynesboro High School. She wants to “continue moving them forward,” and continue building relationships with city officials to work together for students.