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Stories By The James: The River We All Share

Amber Ellis grew up in the woods of Powhatan County, Virginia, by a little creek that flowed through her backyard. Her childhood days along that creek allowed her to form a deep connection with water, and it set the foundation for the James River becoming a guiding force throughout her life. 

“My first year in college . . . didn’t know anyone there, no friends from home that came with me, and I found myself drawn back to the river . . . [I] found a lot of peace down there because I knew that the water that was there in front of me was the same water that was running in that little creek behind my parents’ home on its way down.”

Today, Amber is the Restoration Director for the James River Association (JRA), the sole nonprofit in the James River watershed dedicated to protecting the James and connecting people to it. Between her work with JRA and a certificate in ecotherapy, Amber’s practice of seeking solace and well-being in the river has blossomed into a passion for creating that same opportunity for others.

“The more I worked with people and in our communities, I realized that they’re not separate. [I] was interested in that cross-section of how can I create spaces for healing the James, but also invite people in to kind of have that space to heal together.”

Amber co-leading a watercolor workshop at Pony Pasture park; photo credit JRA

The James River Brings Us Together

On April 22, 2022, JRA shared Amber’s story when they launched their new storytelling platform, Stories by the James. The project began as a collaboration between JRA and students and professors in the 2020-21 Advanced Media Production Technology program at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

Two years later, Stories by the James has grown to include a partnership with VPM News as well as nearly 100 interviews, essays, art pieces, poems, and more. Through these stories, JRA hopes to bring people together by uplifting how the James River is the common thread running through the communities in its watershed. The organization also hopes to inspire river lovers to better understand their roles in protecting the James.

Not many understand this concept better than Charles Johnson and Genevieve Wall. As educators for JRA, Charles and Genevieve have experienced firsthand how the James unites and engages our younger generation across a spectrum of ways.

Young friends enjoying the Lower James River together; photo courtesy JRA

The James River as an Unforgettable Experience

When Genevieve Wall began working at JRA, she was already familiar with the nonprofit through a previous AmeriCorps opportunity that stationed her at Presquile National Wildlife Refuge in the middle of the James River. By day, she taught environmental programs to excited, nature-hungry students, but by night, she remained alone on the island for the better part of the year. 

“It really gave me an opportunity to develop a really deep sense of place to understand the way the seasons ebb and flow and the relationship between things . . . and how that all ends up coming together to form this really deep picture of meaning. Presquile changed me, and it continues to change me.”

One of Genevieve’s biggest claims-to-fame from her year at Presquile involves an unexpected power outage that lasted several months, through scorching summer heat and frigid fall evenings. We won’t spoil it for you (no one can share the story better than Genevieve herself) but we highly recommend you listen to her audio interview as well as an original song inspired by this experience.

Genevieve educating students on a boat ride to Presquile Natural Wildlife Refuge; photo credit JRA

The James River as the Foundation for Connection

During her time at JRA, Genevieve met fellow educator, Charles Johnson. 

As an avid water-lover, paddler, and certified canoe instructor, Charles had already formed a powerful bond with the James River when he joined JRA as an environmental educator. He immediately took to the role, which combined his passion for spreading conservation awareness with his desire to make a positive impact for younger people in the James River watershed.

One of Charles’s favorite aspects of working for JRA is that he gets to empower students to grasp a greater understanding of their relationship with the James. Through paddling the river’s waters, touching a live fish, and learning about challenges facing the health of the James, students walk away with a profound respect and appreciation for the James.

“It’s amazing if they can learn what we’re teaching during the field experience, but it’s so much more fulfilling to me when I see these larger moments happening, when they are making everyday choices that leave our watershed in a better way. If [they] are able to educate someone else or take action on behalf of the things that I taught them, [that] is really where I could see a lot of change happening.”

Charles canoeing with a student on the Upper James River; photo credit JRA

Through these narratives and more, Stories by the James highlights the compelling ways that the James River creates connections between others, ourselves, and our natural spaces. Whether you seek the comfort of a group journaling session along the riverbank, look for the lessons of solitude on an island, or introduce children to the joy and teachable moments a river provides, it’s these shared moments that remind us both of the humanity within our communities, as well as our responsibility to steward the precious natural resources that bring us together. Choose your story today

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