I was so far from feeling the spirit of the holidays. Then the note came from Nate Barilich. It led me to Learning Together, a wonderful preschool in Southeast Raleigh where, for an hour, I was Mr. Bob to the children. It also led me to Enloe High School’s charity ball, a showcase for the promise of youth.

The ball’s climax was a moment of drama. Each year, the Enloe Student Council raises money for—and Enloe students work with—a selected nonprofit serving the Southeast Raleigh community. This year the council chose Learning Together, an “inclusion preschool” that teaches kids with special needs in the same classrooms as, well, other kids. The ball, at Marbles Museum, culminated the fundraising drive. Tickets were $30–$50; 1,200 were sold.

So Marbles was packed, and the noise was joyous. But the question remained whether the council, through ticket sales and other efforts, had reached its announced fundraising goal of $100,000. That’s not a typo. The council raised $92,000 last year for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, but even so, a six-figure fundraising target for high-school students? I found that extraordinary. And the last I’d heard, they were short.

Then Emma O’Brien, council vice president, took the microphone. “Our relationship with Learning Together will continue to grow and develop,” O’Brien said. Marbles fell silent. Behind her, Barilich, an English teacher and council adviser, held a giant check covered in paper.

“I was truly inspired by every staff member, teacher and child at Learning Together,” O’Brien continued. “I was inspired by all of you,” a nod to the Enloe students who’ve helped at Learning Together after school.

“And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. I’m honored to present the check to Learning Together for $118,000 …”

Marbles exploded. Enloe had done it.


Learning Together is in its 40th year. Nell Barnes, the dynamic executive director, has been there for 33. The Enloe gift, Barnes says, is the largest in its history aside from major foundation grants. Enloe students have been “incredible, determined, passionate, creative—it’s hard to describe what they have done and the heart they have given.”

Heart and a few tears, says Barilich, who’s watched teenage students, especially some of the boys, wiping their eyes after falling in love with the children.

The basic Learning Together formula is nine special-needs kids, ages 3–5, in a classroom with nine others of similar age. Federal, state and county funds support the kids in the first group, as well as some of the others whose families are poor.

But the subsidies aren’t nearly enough to pay for the full range of teaching, therapeutic and food services the kids need. Add the fact that LT is expanding, with eight classrooms in two Southeast Raleigh locations and two more in Cary operated in conjunction with the federal Head Start program, plus an outreach program for children with mental health needs living in homeless shelters or hotels.

“We really want to take our services out there where the needs are,” Barnes says.

The need for high-quality preschools for kids with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds far exceeds the supply, which is why Barnes and her board are in constant fundraising mode—and why they went all-out to be chosen by Enloe.

When their application came in, Barilich says, the student council embraced it immediately, ending the selection process. The preschool needed money, and in exchange it was offering something that Enloe coveted—an opportunity for students to give back to, and learn about, the community that surrounds them.

Learning Together would be a veritable lesson plan on the value of inclusive education, with a detailed plan for every member of Enloe’s dozens of clubs encouraged to come share their interests with the kids. When I visited, the astronomy club was there, and kids were learning about the stars with club president Charlie Gowland.

In another room, Enloe students DaVinci Campbell and Akeelah Lockhart were helping the 4-year-olds make music with their drums and tambourine while we all sang “Jingle Bells”—repeatedly!

I must’ve said hello to 50 children and seven or eight teachers. It was all a blur—exhilarating and physical (lots of bending down), and the kids were terrific. Many hugs. No crying. I had trouble figuring out which kids had disabilities. They all seemed to be learning how to get along with everyone else—which should be the point of every school.

At the preschool level, LT assistant director Jan Baker says, the focus is on socialization and communications skills. In short, LT strives to help every child, regardless of problems at home or specific ability deficits, become comfortable around other kids and adults.

“Once a child feels safe and loved,” Baker says, “then they’re going to learn.”

That’s where the big kids from Enloe come in. Not that long ago, they were little kids.

Barilich says he reminds his students that Enloe is a magnet school, and its fundamental purpose is to bring diverse elements of the community together in one place. And there’s a public policy lesson: For every $1 invested in good preschools, the community benefits add up to $10.

“At Enloe, we have kind of the same goal as Learning Together,” Barilich says. “Everyone is valued. Everyone is respected.”

On that note, my holiday season begins.

This article appeared in print with the headline “A joyful noise”