Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Rachel Stone is the eldest of three pastor’s kids (or PKs, as she says) who never would have imagined that she would follow her father, mother, and faith to Fargo, North Dakota, to help establish a new church in the northern plains city. As a young wife and mother to three small boys, Rachel found the move challenging in a variety of ways.
“This is a small town to me,” Rachel explains. “I would equate it to the old Western where a cowboy no one knows walks into a saloon and everything stops as they all just look at him … I felt like that for a long time. I would walk into a store or the library, and everyone would just stop and stare. I had to get used to that.”
She adapted quickly and soon found herself enrolling her oldest son in the local Head Start Program, which provides early childhood education, health, nutrition and parent involvement services.
Little did she know that the decision would change the course of her life.
Rachel dove into volunteering for various committees, then branching out to other area nonprofits. Those experiences quickly planted the seeds of childhood education advocacy that have now blossomed into her life’s calling and passion.
“Fargo was my blessing and my family’s blessing in disguise,” Rachel says.
A dream fulfilled
As Rachel got involved in her new community, she soon met Sheila Christenson, owner of Christensen Modeling and Talent with her daughter Stephanie, in 2006. Rachel signed with their agency and a new future unfolded in front of her.
“I believe in family, I value family,” Rachel explains. “I wanted to take care of my kids and nurture them, but (modeling) enlightened me and showed me that there are still opportunities for me and my dreams.”
Modeling led her to cross paths with Kathy Yohe and her daughter Allison, who were co-directors of the Mrs. North Dakota International and Miss Teen International Pageants. The mother-daughter duo asked her to run for Mrs. North Dakota.
“My reaction was, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Rachel remembers.
They were serious, and she ran, earning second runner-up with her platform of youth missions. Though she didn’t win, Rachel says the experience helped her realize that being authentic to who she is as a person is crucial in any situation.
“I learned it was okay to be Rachel and that being yourself will stand out like no other,” she says. Rachel took what she learned and ran again the next year, this time advocating for Head Start and earning the title of Mrs. North Dakota, the first African American woman to do so.
“I could hear a pin drop when they announced it,” Rachel says. Now when she shares with students about her experience, she makes sure to point out that finances were a challenge when she was running for the title; she tells students she borrowed the dress she won in, bought the suit for the interviews at a garage sale and purchased the shoes for the athletic portion at a discount store.
“It doesn’t take a lot of money to make a difference and do something big,” she shares. “I like to tell kids that so they know that you don’t need a lot of money; you only need determination and passion to do big things.”
As a titleholder, Rachel traveled nationally as a spokesperson for Head Start at organizations and in schools.
“And that’s when my purpose began to unfold,” she remembers.
Making a difference on a daily basis
As Rachel’s modeling career took off, she switched to a Christian modeling agency that aligned more closely with her faith. Her travels took her all over the country and even landed her on a television show counseling other models who struggled with their self-worth. As she was coaching them, Rachel realized she was missing important time with her own children and that working with other youth would bring her much greater satisfaction.
She decided to apply for a job with Fargo Public Schools and was initially dismayed to find only a lunch lady position available. Rachel admits she struggled with the notion of being a titleholder and national spokesperson serving chicken nuggets and wearing a hair net, but after wrestling with it for a while, Rachel applied.
“Sometimes making an impact isn’t always pretty,” she says.
But Rachel’s warmth and authenticity allowed her to connect with students on a deeper level, and she consistently brought joy and encouragement to those young kids.
Chris Triggs was the principal at Madison Elementary at the time Rachel worked there, and he saw every day how great she was with the kids.
“She brought high energy and positivity,” he remembers. “Some people are just naturally good at relating to kids, and she’s one of those people. She knows what to say and what to ask them and how to build that relationship . . . she’s just a good person, and she loves kids and believes in them.”
As Triggs observed Rachel, he realized the school and students would benefit from her serving in a bigger role, so he called her into his office one day.
“I was called to the principal’s office, and I thought, ‘Lord, what have I done?’ ” Rachel laughs.
But she wasn’t in trouble. Far from it. Principal Triggs shared with her how students had come to him to say how much they loved her and how great of a job she was doing, and he offered her a position as a paraprofessional who worked specifically with kids with behavioral issues. Rachel was able to relate to many of those struggling students because she herself battled similar issues as a child in Chicago, and she could identify with them.
“I’m the oldest so I didn’t have a big sister, but I made a vow that when I got older, I would be the big sister for these kids that I never had,” Rachel says.
Empowerment meets resilience
Working with those kids and helping them deal with their struggles in a positive way inspired Rachel to develop an empowerment program geared towards upper elementary students, specifically girls. Rachel named the program “P’s & Q’s Etiquette” with a double meaning about princesses and queens as well as the expression referring to minding your manners. She started the program in the basement of her church with two students but quickly grew to nearly 30 students. The program teaches elementary, middle and high school girls leadership skills, resilience, goal setting and conflict resolution. She offered the program in Fargo Public Schools before bringing it to Horizon Middle School in Moorhead, where she currently works.
Rachel’s journey in Moorhead’s educational system started as a lunch lady — again — but soon grew into becoming a support services staff member with her own classroom where students came for understanding and assistance.
Suddenly Rachel realized she could do even more by serving on the Moorhead School Board.
“I had thought about running back in 2012 … but my focus was on Ps and Qs,” she says. “But the more I thought about it and how passionate I am about kids, I said, ‘Why not?’ “
Campaigning for kids
Two years ago, Rachel filed her candidacy and began campaigning, sharing with prospective voters her experiences in both the Fargo and Moorhead school systems and talking about the need for workable policies on behavioral issues and supporting students on a variety of issues.
As she was out knocking on doors, Rachel realized that the students she had seen every day in the lunch room and hallways and her classroom were some of her most ardent supporters. They would come to the door and tell their parents about “Miss Rachel” from school and how they would vote for her if they could. One of the most powerful examples happened during a parade when some of Rachel’s supporters weren’t able to walk with her, and Rachel was feeling pretty down about being by herself.
She gets choked up thinking about what happened next.
“I saw my students out there, and they saw me and the signs and they came out and marched with me,” Rachel remembers. “I didn’t have a trailer or a whole group of people, and I was fairly new to Moorhead … but the kids knew me, and they were cheering for me.”
That Tuesday night in November, Rachel watched the election results with her friend and fellow candidate Kara Gloe, and she saw that she earned 17 percent of the vote, enough to land one of three open seats on the board.
“I started crying, I was so excited. It was a surreal moment; I just couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I’ve never fit in, I’ve never felt like I had the qualifications to do what I wanted to do, but it’s the call that kept pulling me. I had an opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless, and God led me to this community to be part of the solution, to bring understanding and work together.”
Working toward unity
As Rachel works toward understanding and advocating for local schoolchildren through her school board position, she is not unaware of what is happening on the national level regarding racism, equality and inclusivity. As the mother of three African American sons, Rachel has to be aware. And the last few months have weighed heavily on her.
“It’s been scary . . . that could be my son . . . I don’t want to lose my babies or my loved ones,” she says.
Rachel encourages her sons to realize that listening to authorities and cooperating with them means they would live to see another day.
“I’ve always tried to teach my sons never to react to your emotions, but take the time to really process things and think them through before making choices,” Rachel says. “Life is about choices, and there are always consequences to every choice that we make in life . . . Violence is never the answer. You have to know your talent and use that avenue and opportunity to speak out for justice and for others.”
But even as her sons are armed with all the good advice in the world, it doesn’t mean she won't still worry.
“I’ve been scared and afraid for them,” Rachel says.
She herself is not immune to negative experiences based on her race. She said when she was running for Mrs. North Dakota, she was called a racial slur, and when she was door knocking during her Moorhead School Board campaign, someone came to the door with a gun and commanded her to get off the property immediately.
Rightfully so, Rachel was shaken by what happened and shared it with a small group of Moorhead residents, including former mayor Del Rae Williams. Williams volunteered to knock on doors with her.
“I felt she needed to feel and be safe,” Williams says in an email. “I really enjoyed getting to know Rachel. The more I know her, the more a fan I become.”
Through all of it, Rachel continues to preach positivity, to all the students in her empowerment program and to her sons. Her two oldest have graduated from high school; Emmanuel is attending MSUM and Samuel is taking a break before he heads to college. Gabriel is the youngest and a senior football player.
Rachel says the notion of being an empty nester soon is daunting, but she has faith that her sons will be able to draw on the many lessons she’s taught them over the years about pursuing their goals, finding their passion and being smart.
After all, faith is what led her to Fargo-Moorhead where she found her our purpose and passion.
“I have had many challenges and struggles even in my personal life, but God has walked with me all along this journey,” she says. “I am a woman of faith all the way. My faith is what keeps me strong and grounded. I truly believe that we were all born for a purpose . . . I want to continue to be a role model to our young people. To show our brown children that they can be and do anything that they set their minds too.”