“Tara speaks truth to power and works to make our community better for all.” That’s how Lydia Armistead described Tara Orlando when she nominated her to be featured in the Moss Arts Center’s outdoor installation project, “Monuments.”

An ethereal, site-specific projection installation by artist Craig Walsh, “Monuments” celebrates unsung community members who impact the New River Valley. Upending traditional expectations of public monuments and the selective history represented in public spaces, the installation will project unforgettable, large-scale images of Orlando and nominees Debbie Sherman-Lee and Jacob George onto trees at night on the Virginia Tech Drillfield, recognizing the profound importance of their work. The public can experience the free event on Friday, April 22, through Saturday, May 14, from 8:30 to 11 p.m. each evening.

Tara Orlando

Orlando is the founder of Floyd Friends of Asylum Seekers, an organization established to support legal asylees living in the Floyd County area. After discovering that many immigrants headed north were traveling on buses without food, supplies, or money, Orlando and a few others started preparing hot meals and collecting essential travel items to distribute to weary travelers at a bus stop in Roanoke.

She traveled to Roanoke to meet buses at every opportunity — sometimes 20 days a month. Realizing she couldn’t keep up with the demand on her own, Orlando reached out for help via Facebook and within a year had applied for nonprofit status. With that, the Floyd Friends of Asylum Seekers was born. Now, the Floyd County area is home to a community of approximately 42 asylees, and the organization has grown into a motivated base of dedicated volunteers who assist these new residents with transportation to essential appointments, work, legal assistance, medical care, and access to English as a Second Language classes.

And Orlando spends time with them every day.

“The more I get to know these people, the more I love them,” she said. “These people are a part of the fabric of Appalachia now. They’re all flourishing and learning. It’s beautiful. I feel very honored and blessed  to be part of this journey.”

Debbie Sherman-Lee

Debbie Sherman-Lee, a woman with short gray hair wearing a red jacket over aa green and yellow dress with a colorful necklace poses outside in front of a brick building.
Debbie Sherman-Lee. Photo by Ribhav Murria for Virginia Tech.

A dedicated volunteer in the community, Debbie Sherman-Lee commits her time, expertise, and care to broaden educational access, cultivate civic engagement, dismantle racism, and provide affordable housing. She taught at Christiansburg High School for 36 years and now serves as board chair of Christiansburg Institute Inc. — the African American school she attended before Montgomery County Public Schools were racially integrated.

She also serves as a member of the boards of Community Housing Partners, Appalachian Women Rising, and Dialogue on Race. She has volunteered at the Montgomery County Christmas Store since 1982 and is a member of the Community Group/New Mountain Climbers, Montgomery County Education Foundation, Christiansburg High School Leadership Team, Pastor Parish Relations Committee of Asbury United Methodist Church, the United Methodist Women group, 100+ Women Who Care of the New River Valley, the local branch of the NAACP, and Potpourri Club.

Multiple people nominated Sherman-Lee for “Monuments,” describing her as “joyful,” “tireless,” “vital to the success of many community organizations,” “fundamentally kind,” and possessing “more knowledge and connections than anyone [they] know.”

Jacob George

Jacob George, wearing a light blue, long sleeved button-up shirt with glasses stands in a room facing the camera.
Jacob George. Photo by Ribhav Murria for Virginia Tech.

Serving as a radiation therapist at LewisGale Regional Cancer Center in Pulaski is just one of Jacob George’s many roles. Before starting this position 16 years ago, George taught math to students in grades five through 10 in his native India, worked in a Texas hospital dietary, and earned certifications as a pharmacy technician and radiation therapist.

As a dedicated husband and father of three, George devotes his time to a variety of pursuits beyond the excellent care he’s known for at LewisGale Regional Cancer Center, including driving buses for Blacksburg Transit and actively participating in his church. In his free time, he loves to grow vegetables in his garden and cook Indian food for his children.

In these various capacities, George is consistently “extraordinary,” “humble,” and “compassionate,” writes his nominator, Robin Thompson, director of the cancer center.

Community is at the core of “Monuments.” The Moss Arts Center held special listening sessions, where community members could learn more about the project and share recommendations for honorees. The center selected the community members featured in “Monuments” from a collection of 34 individuals nominated by community members. A full list of nominees is available online.   

Monuments” is presented in partnership with Virginia Tech’s Center for Humanities and Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, both based in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

This year, Virginia Tech marks its 150th year with an ongoing celebration of its impact and engagement. The arts are woven throughout the university's history and are a critically important part of its future. “Monuments” is part of a range of special performances, exhibitions, and experiences happening throughout the month of April that demonstrate the incredible value the arts and creative experiences at Virginia Tech.

Written by Susan Bland