CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — What started as a class project has become a safe space for community members to share their stories, judgement-free.

The Humans of James River podcast began as an assignment for Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) graduate Ava McHugh, who now attends James Madison University (JMU). It was part of her Capstone Project at the Center for Leadership and International Relations.

When McHugh graduated, Irelyn Rogan, 18, now a senior at James River High School’s Specialty Center, applied to carry on the podcast for her own Capstone Project.

“It’s a legacy Capstone. We have several of those,” Rogan said. “The most well-known one might be River Jam, which is a music and arts festival. Another thing about the Capstone Project is that every one is completely different and they’re all nonprofit.”

(Photo: The Humans of James River)

Rogan said that Capstone Projects are intended to take approximately 30 hours of students’ time. With three months until completion, she has already put in more than 100 hours.

“The idea behind it is just to create a safe space for people in our community to be able to tell their stories,” Rogan said. “It’s for the staff, teachers, coaches, students, and alumni, as well, from the James River community. Everyone can share their stories, and it’s really just because we didn’t have anything like it before.”

When McHugh started the podcast in 2019, Rogan was a guest, sharing her own story. She lost her mother to alcoholism when she was a little girl, eventually moving to Chesterfield County with her father.

“I was born to amazing parents who loved me very much. I was so lucky to have them,” the Dec. 9, 2019 episode began. “But then, around 4 or 5, I started to realize there was something wrong with my mom.”

In the podcast, Rogan recalled her mother forgetting to feed her. She talked about her mother eventually being hospitalized, which was a confusing and upsetting experience for such a young child to witness. Rogan eventually went to live with her aunt on Long Island in New York State.

Later, Rogan would move to Virginia to be with family.

“After I had my episode, so many people reached out to me who could relate to me or were just like, ‘Thank you for sharing this. It’s changed my perspective,'” Rogan said. “There was just so much good that came out of it, and the way that that made me feel was amazing.”

(Photo: The Humans of James River)

A junior at the time, that experience encouraged Rogan to take ownership of The Humans of James River podcast after its founder graduated. Since then, she has spent time expanding the podcast, which now has approximately 400 subscribers and thousands of followers across its social media platforms.

“The thing about The Humans of James River is that nothing’s in one specific category,” Rogan said. “One of my favorite episodes was with our Specialty Center Coordinator, Mrs. Hewlett, and she talked about what it’s like being a black female educator in CCPS.”

But the success of the podcast did not come overnight. A tremendous amount of planning goes into each episode. Rogan said she first schedules an initial meeting with her guest via Google Meet, after which she drafts questions for the day of the actual podcast recording. Using Squadcast to record — Rogan described it as similar to FaceTime — and GarageBand software to edit, Rogan cuts down the full-length interview, adds an intro and outro, and sends the podcast out for approval before uploading.

She said her upload schedule is all planned out through June.

Rogan also takes time to edit her guests’ voices, if they wish to remain anonymous, as the podcast tackles more severe issues.

“There’s students on who have dealt with suicide and depression and sexual assault and so many really hard, hard things that no one should ever have to go through,” she said.

But through such conversations, Rogan has worked to foster a sense of community with The Humans of James River podcast, especially with students learning virtually because of coronavirus concerns.

“COVID kind of came out of nowhere,” Rogan said. “Luckily enough, it really worked with COVID because I can record everything digitally.”

Since she took over the podcast, Rogan said the James River community and people from neighboring schools have been overwhelmingly supportive, especially her advisor David Kern, Assistant Principal at James River High School.

“I just want to help people like how it helped me, and help people whose stories are like mine and completely different from mine,” Rogan said. “I’ve learned so much, so much, like, more than I ever could’ve dreamed of learning, just from doing this project.”

That’s why Rogan said she hopes to continue working on a podcast when she moves on to Marymount University to study Elementary Education and play lacrosse.

“You’re in a communtiy wherever you are, and your voice deserves to be shared because no matter how big or how small your story is, it is so important and so valid,” Rogan said. “A lot of times, you don’t think it’s that big of a deal, but it is.”

The last episode of this second season of The Humans of James River is scheduled for release on June 8.