For African Americans, from slavery to the modern Civil Rights Movement, the answers were these: You pursued learning because this is how you asserted yourself as a free person; how you claimed your humanity. You pursued learning so you could work for social uplift, for the liberation of your people. You pursued education so you could prepare yourself to lead your people.”, These answers are a far cry from the one we give our children today – to get a job.
Brief History of Program: In the 2015-2016 school year, there were over 1700 homeless students in Richmond Public Schools. Exacerbating the perils of poverty, their homelessness makes them especially vulnerable to school failure, drug abuse, depression, mental illness, chronic joblessness, and more. It is difficult to imagine doing well in school when you don’t even know where you’re going to sleep at night. Despite this challenge, many of these students are on track for college but are in need of support from a community of caring adults.
Change the World RVA began in December 2011 when Bon Air United Methodist Church (BAUMC) and Westover Hills United Methodist Church (WHUMC) independently donated funds to a Richmond Public School social worker, Alia Butler Adlich, for Christmas gifts for homeless high school students and their families. The two churches joined together in June to host a graduation party for homeless seniors from Armstrong, Huguenot, and George Wythe High Schools in Richmond. It occurred to us afterwards that it would have been even better had we known the students during their entire senior year instead of meeting them on the day of the party. This fostered the idea of an after school program for high school students. During that summer, we offered a “College Prep 101” course to eight of those graduates, and this program became the foundation for the Change the World curriculum that we offer today.
In August and September 2012, we hosted two organizational meetings for anyone interested in the project. By then, we had numerous individuals and congregations who had provided meals, helped with transportation, joined the prayer circle, or made financial contributions. Forty-two people attended the first meeting. They represented many congregations and denominations, as well as the community. Two months later, we had volunteer participants from BAUMC, WHUMC, Woodlake United Methodist Church, Church of the Good Shepherd, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal, Koinonia Christian Church, Bon Air Presbyterian, Richmond’s First Baptist Church, Temple Beth El, Second Presbyterian, and West End Assembly of God. We also established supportive relationships with the James River Kiwanis Club, the Bon Air Rotary Club, River City Rotary Club, two local attorneys, and PCRX (local IT firm) refurbished several computers for us at no charge. Over the past year, these relationships have expanded to include other churches, such as Oak Forest Baptist Church, and St. Mark’s Baptist Church.
We organized into five teams: Academic Enhancement, Food & Hygiene Pantries, Mentoring, Leaving the Nest (transition to college), and Celebrations. During that first year, we worked with the Virginia Mentoring Partnership to create effective mentor and host mentor programs.
In October, 2012, we began to offer an after-school tutoring program at Westover Hills UMC every Tuesday and Thursday. Volunteer tutors helped students with their homework and college application essays. Church and community members provided a hot, nutritious meal at the end of the day, and each student was given a bus pass to get home. We had approximately 20 students participate in the program and 12 adult volunteer tutors. We also hosted holiday parties for the students and took field trips, including college visits, and visits to Shalom Farms, the Valentine History Center, and the Chihuly exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. At the end of the school year, we hosted a graduation party for all of our seniors.
In August 2013 we incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in order to better serve our students, to improve our access to resources that that will benefit our youth. We undertook a strategic planning process, formed a Board of Directors, and got to work!
In the fall of 2013, we continued our Tuesday/Thursday afterschool program and added a year-long College Prep 101 class that met every Wednesday at Boulevard United Methodist Church. This additional program served high school seniors who were interested in attending college, as well as our current college students. Our goals are to keep our college students on track by providing support as they need it; to motivate our high school students to apply to colleges and scholarships; and to help students explore different career possibilities. We have guest speakers and arrange college visits, shadowing days, and more.
These relationships are critical to helping our students move successfully into their lives as college students.
We also partner with a wealth of programs and agencies in Richmond who also serve our students and their families. These include (but this list is the tip of the iceberg) Richard Bland College, Advocates for Richmond Youth, Flagler House, Homeward, RISC, Richmond Peace Education Center, Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, Art 180, Great Expectations, Reynolds Community College, and more.
Keys to Success. The most important key to the success of this foundation has been our partnership with Ms. Alia Butler Adlich, the McKinney-Vento Act Social Worker in the three Richmond high schools we serve. Charged with addressing the needs of students experiencing homelessness and unstable living situations, she identifies students who would benefit from our program, and she also reaches out to us when students face emergency situations that we can address. Ms. Adlich is a dynamic and determined individual who is committed to seeing these children succeed.
Our program has also been successful because we are flexible and responsive to student needs as they arise. We are intentional about not becoming a "typical" charity or social service program. We care deeply for our students as individuals. They are never a case number or a file in our drawer. The key to our success has been fostering relationships between each student and caring adults. We teach them to network, to constantly work to form relationships with people who will be positive, supportive individuals in their lives. We have fun. We create a feeling of family in everything we do. We talk a lot with our students that our program is not a charity, that we expect each student to succeed and “pay it forward.” We succeed, in large part, because we use a positive, strengths-based approach to education and individual growth.
Comprehensive program to address complex needs. In order to fully address the complex needs of these students, our program has been multi-faceted from its inception. Very early on, we established a Facebook page to support students and address their needs. Using a strengths-based, positive-focused approach, we provide after school tutoring; a College Prep 101 course for high school seniors and current college students; a “Change the World” curriculum for students; field trips and college visits; emergency transportation; mentoring; host mentoring; support for the transition from high school to college and careers; assistance with health care; help finding employment; linkages to other community resources; and support through the college years.
We celebrate their successes along the way. We have created an additional food & hygiene pantry as well as a clothes closet at Boulevard UMC. The students are responsible for organizing and stocking the pantry and closet, with help from volunteer Elaine Vitale, owner of Straightening Spaces.
College support. Perhaps the greatest strength of our program is that we stay with our students through college graduation. Most of our students lose access to services and support when they turn 18 or graduate from high school. If a student is a first generation college student and/or has little or no family support, a bump in the road such as book expenses, homesickness, or a failed midterm – could potentially derail them from their dreams. Without the support of caring adults, these could take a young person off course. Change the World RVA helps students with all aspects of the college experience: purchasing bedding and other dorm items, acquiring laptops, moving into the dorm, helping to pay for books, sending care packages, editing papers, and providing moral support. And did we mention, celebrating success?
Fundraising. In our first year, we raised over $21,000 through fundraisers, individual donations, and church offerings. Our first fundraiser was the Christmas Cookie Walk at Bon Air UMC, and we raised $2200.00. In March 2013, our first annual Another Woman’s Treasure Bazaar raised over $8000.00. We were also awarded a $1500.00 grant from the Richmond District Board of Missions. In 2014, we will received a $3000.00 from the Conference of the United Methodist Church and a $2000.00 grant from the United Methodist Foundation. We have also received generous support from the TJMaxx Foundation, St. Christopher's School, the Bon Air United Methodist Men, the Bon Air Rotary, the Richmond District United Methodist Women, the Network of Enterprising Women, KPMG & First Book, St. Michael's Episcopal Church, Ellwood Thompson, LARKS (Ladies doing Acts of Random Kindness & Service) and more. We continue to apply for grants to support our students. Individual donations, large and small, are the financial backbone of our organization and make all the difference in the world for our students.
Organizational Structure. We are an all-volunteer organization. We are lead by volunteers and we rely on volunteers to do the work of the foundation. Our Board of Directors meets monthly; we also have a “Dream Team” consisting of the board plus key volunteers who have taken responsibility for various aspects of our program (e.g., food pantries, transportation, and mentoring).
Relationships and social change. Our biggest impact has been that we have built relationships between homeless high school and college students and caring adults in the Richmond community. Our foundation isn’t just about raising money or even collecting items for food pantries – although we certainly need both. What we’re really about is getting adults in the community to actually meet our students – this usually happens when they give them a ride somewhere, but it also happens in the after school program and the summer college prep program and other places. Once people meet our students, they fall in love with them. They want to help them. They want to become a caring person in their life. They reach out in ways they never dreamed of. We hope that out of these relationships we’ll see these adults join together to advocate for systemic change in areas such as public transportation and quality public education. Suddenly these issues aren’t something that affects some anonymous person or group of people; they affect a young person that they really care about. Church members may not have cared less about public transportation a year ago. But after trying to help students find jobs for the past year, they all see the impact that inadequate transportation has on their welfare, self-esteem, and ability to succeed and become independent. Our hope is that we will continue to foster relationships that will ultimately result in social change.
Although this is a complex, often challenging undertaking, the need is great and the potential to change lives for generations is profoundly exciting. The complexity also allows us to use the gifts of many community partners and individuals, forming partnerships and relationships that will bear fruit for years to come.
 James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988).
 Perry, “Up from the Parched Earth,” 11.