Biker babes? Living Stones launch preschool

The Living Stones church on Market Street in the Woolen Mills neighborhood may be best known for its impressive collection of Harleys parked outside each Sunday. But on weekdays, the vehicle of choice has a few extra wheels and a lot more cargo space. The Church has a new preschool– let the minivans roll!

Like the Living Stones ministry itself, school director Amy Venezian says the preschool's founding resulted from divine intervention.

"I was led in prayer," says Venezian, "that the Woolen Mills area would need a Montessori preschool."

Venezian, who had been a Montessori teacher for 16 years in New York and then in Arlington before moving to Charlottesville two years ago, says she began researching locations and planning for the school. But everything fell into place when she spoke with Living Stones minister Sandy Lewis Kelso at a church revival back in April.

Kelso also had a vision for the hog-happy church.

"I knew that God had put us together to work together," Kelso explains. "She brought some illustrations, and my heart melted," she says of Venezian. "I wanted to be in her school; I wanted her to teach me."

Within months, the two had launched the Living Stones Montessori School, which currently has nine students between the ages of two and five.

"This is God," says Kelso. "We humans couldn't have pulled this together."

Although Charlottesville already boasts five Montessori schools, Venezian says the need particularly in the Woolen Mills location was not being met. Response to the program, she says, has been positive from the start.

Mary Margaret Harrison (wife of Hook music writer Damani Harrison) says a warm reception made her feel comfortable enrolling her two-year-old daughter, Iman.

As a teacher, Harrison describes Venezian as "very gentle, calm, quiet." And Iman loves her new school. "She's really different than she used to be," says Harrison, citing her daughter's increased ability to focus.

And while some might question the melding of religion with the secular teachings of Maria Montessori, the Italian woman who founded the Montessori method more than 100 years ago, Venezian says spirituality is perfectly in keeping with the founder's philosophy.

"It leaves the door open for spirituality," she says. If a Montessori teacher was Jewish, she explains, she could introduce the Old Testament. A Buddhist Montessori teacher might offer Zen teachings. At the Living Stones preschool, "We get to bring in more Christianity because we are overseen by the minister."

Lindsay Schwab, administrator of the Montessori School of Charlottesville, says that while the other Montessori schools in town are secular, in other parts of the world the Montessori method is routinely paired with church teachings.

Fred Caplin, head of the Montessori Community School on Pantops Mountain, agrees that there's a place for spirituality in a Montessori school, and he also feels that there's plenty of local demand for the "child centered" teaching method that allows children to learn at their own pace.

One of the focuses of Montessori teaching is sensorial and practical life skills, in which children learn from performing everyday tasks such as cleaning or cooking.

So will the Living Stones students be learning about motorcycles? Not exactly. Though biker church members did prepare the lower level of the church for the preschool by painting and fundraising, they won't be teaching motorcycle maintenance in the school just yet.

"They're left out of that part," she laughs.

Biker gang?