James Pierce, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia, was awarded the John E. Baker Legacy Award at Friday evening’s sixth annual John E. Baker Legacy Dinner hosted by the African-American Teaching Fellows.

University of Virginia Curry School of Education professor Patrice Preston Grimes was honored with the John E. Baker Community Education Award.

The Baker dinner is the African American Teaching Fellows’ premier annual fundraising event, and it supports the organization’s efforts to recruit, assist and provide professional support to African-American teachers in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

Keynote speaker Rhonda Joy McLean, deputy general counsel for Time Inc., said her late uncle Baker and Marie Coles Baker, McLean’s aunt, were among her strongest mentors as a child in North Carolina.

“Talented teachers can transform lives,” McLean said. “My life has been transformed again and again, both by my family members and in school.”

Pierce, who has been with the Boys & Girls Clubs since 2005, said he was first drawn to the organization by his wife, an Albemarle County Public Schools teacher.

“I continue to be inspired by their mission,” Pierce said. “That is such an admirable goal, because any organization that works with children wants mentors who look like their kids to inspire their lives.”

Brandon Readus, a 2014 graduate of the program and current AATF board member, said the program expanded his professional support network as a young teacher.

“You just get immersed in things that are going to be relevant to you teaching in Charlottesville,” he said. “You become sort of like a small family … I have a cohort of not only friends but of professional people I can reach out to when I am in need of something.”

UVa fourth-year student Nikia Ewell, a first-year teaching fellow completing her student-teaching at Baker-Butler Elementary, said she hopes to bring a diverse perspective to her future students.

“I hope to just bring a different perspective,” said Ewell, who grew up in Manassas. “Within the African-American community there is so, so much diversity — there is not just one experience.”

Enid Krieger, the evening’s mistress of ceremonies, said the fellows have an important task.

“They are the ones who are living the legacy of John Baker,” she said. “They are the ones who will fill his shoes and, as you know, those are some very big shoes.”

Baker, who passed away in 2005, was a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served both as an appointed member of the Albemarle County School Board from 1981 to 1987 and was one of the board’s first elected members in 1995.

Albemarle County’s Baker-Butler Elementary was named in his honor in 2002.

Bernard Hairston, the first chairman of the AATF board of directors and co-chairman of the Baker dinner until last year, was given a surprise special recognition award at the end of the evening.

Hairston, executive director of community engagement for Albemarle County Public Schools, said the event and AATF are his way of honoring Baker’s life.

“For me, this is a tradition, it is an expectation and my way of supporting what I knew about John Baker as a leader in this community and all the things that he modeled for people.”

For McLean, the teaching fellows’ work is a step toward increasing the value and recognition of classroom teachers.

“It is so, so important for us to recognize, nurture and support talented teachers because we need to raise talented young people,” she said. “We also need to reinvest in teachers because it is an important but undervalued profession.”

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