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Help Somebody Spotlight: Angela Harper, Northstar Academy

The Help Somebody Hall of Fame celebrates and recognizes good people doing good work in our RVA community.  We encourage our readers to nominate nonprofit staff, volunteers, board members and community members who are making a positive difference.

This month, we’re recognizing Angela Harper – an IEP/IAP Liaison at Northstar Academy.  Northstar Academy is a unique and highly successful non-profit school serving children in grades K-12. They promote educational excellence and career opportunities for students with disabilities who have academic, physical and social challenges.

Angela’s colleague (who asked to remain anonymous) nominated her, saying, “I nominated Angela because I thought she embodied the spirit of the Help Somebody Hall of Fame. She spends her days helping others. She works tirelessly to ensure both the nuts and bolts of special needs education as well as the creative magic of garnering individualized growth in her students.”

Here’s what else she had to say about Angela…..


How does Angela demonstrate the spirit of the “Help Somebody Hall of Fame?”

Here at Northstar, our students have academic, physical or social challenges. Angela works diligently to ensure our students and their families have someone to turn to when they need help. She meets with students to develop appropriate annual goals. She helps them talk through difficult problems. She encourages students to strive to be the very best version of themselves.

What really impresses me about Angela is that she has developed innovative approaches to ensure our students achieve their goals. Since our students have a wide range of disabilities, there is no one way to help students overcome their challenges. They benefit from tailored approaches.

For example, every tissue box at Northstar is decorated in conversation starter stickers because she created a game to teach one student how to have appropriate conversations. Another example is that all staff know when we go on vacations, to collect some “swag” from our hotel stay, because Angela has created a plan for another student to earn these goodies with good behavior, after she discovered he has a penchant for hotels. She has transformed her office into a cocoon full of coping strategies disguised as fun. In a prominent location, she has a photograph of another student’s pet dog, which she custom makes holiday-themed outfits, to decorate the image. This makes him smile most days, even when it is hard for him to do so.


What is the impact of Angela’s generosity?


Angela’s hard work and creativity has been instrumental in helping Northstar serve families. One parent was recently interviewed and exclaimed, “Northstar is a great new beginning for our son.” We pride ourselves on transforming lives, families and futures and we would not be able to do so without the tireless efforts of our teachers and staff.

I wish I had someone like Angela helping me through the trials and tribulations of childhood and young adulthood. I am glad that our students have Angela in their corner.


About the Help Somebody Hall of Fame

The Help Somebody Hall of Fame is a platform to express gratitude for a person in the community who acts selflessly to improve the lives of others.  We want to share these stories in hope of inspiring more people in Greater Richmond to act with generosity.  There will be random drawing from those who are honored, and two honorees will select a nonprofit of their choice to receive $1000.  Read more about how to nominate someone here.

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ConnectVA Spotlight: Maggie Smith, CodeVA

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Maggie Smith, and I am the Director of Children’s Programs at CodeVA. My background is in arts education and curation. My career had been focused on fine craft from involvement in the creation of the organization of Cabbage Town Clay & Glassworks, a neighborhood community art center in Atlanta to curating an exhibition of recycled jewelry from a program called The Radical Jewelry Makeover; I have always enjoyed learning and teaching about craft. CodeVA has given me the opportunity to combine my love for craft and education by providing me the challenge of creating arts integrated computer science curricula. Computer science is a craft in the sense that people are creating a “thing” that is useful for other people and enhance daily life.

What is the focus of your work, the need you are addressing?

CodeVA’s mission is to provide equitable computer science education to all students in Virginia. Through our children’s programs, we strive to provide fun and engaging activities to excite both students and parents about computer science. We offer Summer Camp, After-school, and other outreach arts integrated experiences.

A picture taken at CodeDay in May 2018. CodeDay is a student run worldwide event where student programmers, artists, musicians, actors, and everyone else can get together and build apps & games for 24 hours.

What’s the most rewarding part of your work?

Coming to CodeVA was quite a career switch for me. The thought of working with computer science was initially very intimidating. I quickly realized that feeling of intense “not for me,” and intimidation is a part of the educational conflict CodeVA is here to neutralize.

Using hands-on art activities to get students excited and confident in the human side of computers has been a refreshing challenge. The most rewarding part of my job is watching my staff create positive connections with kiddos from a wide variety of communities.

What are some major challenges you have faced?

As our organization has grown, my biggest challenge has been a beautiful problem to have, how to keep up with demand. This session will be our 5th year offering summer camps, and luckily the program gets better each season. I am very fortunate to have an all-star staff that has supported our growth and maintained a mission focused program.

What’s a misconception the public has about your work?

Coming into CodeVA, I had several misconceptions about computer science. I find many adults have similar misconceptions when it comes to their student’s computer science education. When speaking to parents at events I often hear two statements that indicate a disconnect between computer science education and technology in general. One is that their student does need STEM education because they a wiz with a smartphone, or alternatively that after a week of camp their child should be fully versed in all text-based programming languages. Computer science is why and how we use computers. By aiming for 50% on and off-screen activities, we are providing experiences that will hopefully open student’s minds to problem solving, creativity, and making. Computers are not smart; they are following directions given by people. It’s pretty fun to imagine the possibilities. I love seeing kids make discoveries in the classroom. There is a confidence and excitement in knowing computers are tools made by humans for humans. CodeVA is here to introduce computer science to young learners and possibly stir up some curiosity that encourages them to seek developmentally appropriate coding education.

Do you have any interesting initiatives or programs on the horizon?

Summertime is our busiest and most exciting season. This year we will be serving students from all over the city through summer camps and off-site workshops. Simultaneously CodeVA’s teacher training programs are expanding this summer in anticipation of the new Computer Science SOLs that go into effect in the 2019 – 20 school year. We are offering training in six locations across the state for K-12 public school teachers. We have a lot to look forward to in the coming months.

Is your organization involved in any exciting collaborations or partnerships?

Our partnerships are one of the reasons I have so much fun at camp. Through support from our generous fiscal sponsors, we can provide approximately 45% of our student’s financial aid. We partner with several organizations such as St. Andrew’s School, Friend’s Association for Children, Richmond Cycling Corps, STEP, Mosby Court Tenants Association, and Gap 4 Lyfe. Growing our community brings so much to our educational environment that allows everyone to grow.

How are you leveraging the Community Foundation to achieve your mission?

I feel very fortunate that my staff, as well as myself, have been able to participate in educational and professional development opportunities provided by ConnectVA and the Community Foundation. The Community Conversations have been helpful in bringing essential and timely topics back into our space and continuing the conversation with our staff.

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Learning Center Tips: Get Resource Guides from Community Conversations

For many years, the Community Foundation has offered learning opportunities for nonprofit professionals in a variety of formats – leadership programs, networking opportunities, classes and training, to name a few.  Earlier this year, we announced a few programming changes, which you can read more about here.

A new element that has been added is a focus on emerging trends in the sector (locally or nationally) called “Community Conversations”.  The seats for these events are free, but limited, and tend to go quickly.

On the Learning Center you can now view resources from those conversations, in case you couldn’t make it to the event or if you want copies of digital versions of handouts, power point slides, relevant links or community curated content.

To be able to access these resource guides (or sign up for any class) you must:

Go to ConnectVA.org and register/login

  1. Registered users – Login with your existing email and password.
  2. New users – Register by entering your first name, last name, and email. Then set your own password and save it somewhere safe for future reference.
    • Please be sure to check Spam/Junk/Clutter boxes for your new account email verification. To complete your full profile, open your personal navigation menu from the left side of the page and click on “Go to your profile.”

Proceed to the Learning Center, under ‘Learn’ tab

  • View our Course Catalog
  • Select the Resource Guide (or any other course) you desire by pressing ‘Get this course’
  • Once you have the course, the orange button will say ‘Start or resume course’ in the individual course listing. For Resource Guides, simply ‘Start’ the course to view the materials.

Here are some recent Community Conversations and links to their respective Resource Guides:

Tax Law for Nonprofits Community Conversation

In February the Community Foundation and The Institute on Philanthropy invited speaker Bill Gray, Partner at McGuireWoods LLP, to speak about tax law changes and how they might impact the nonprofit world.   The presentation addressed what you might need to know as a nonprofit about new tax laws, how you might prepare your organization, how to adjust fundraising strategies, and more.   Check out the resource guide, which offers the full presentation by McGuire Woods, information about charitable bundling from the Community Foundation and a recent tax law checklist for nonprofit board and staff members created by the National Council of Nonprofits.

Community Conversation with the Office of Community Wealth Building

On March 30, 2018 the Community Foundation hosted Reggie Gordon, Director of the Office of Community Wealth Building (OCWB), for its second Community Conversation.  Reggie and his team have spent the past year in due diligence to best understand the needs of RVA residents who face challenges in accessing living wage jobs, affordable and safe housing, a quality medical home, and overall financial stability.  During the Community Conversation participants learned more about the major OCWB initiatives, plans for the year ahead, and had the opportunity to give insights and suggestions on how to best work together to achieve common goals across sectors.

In the resource guide, you will find an infographic created by the OCWB called “Where Do You Stand?” that illustrates the climb (a ladder is depicted) an individual (and family of 4) must embark upon to reach financial independence locally.  Also included, is a recent City Council presentation and a 2018 Annual Report.

#metoo is Us Too! Community Conversation

In April, the Community Foundation and the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance (VSDVAA) jointly presented a free learning event for nonprofit professionals with speakers Kristi VanAudenhove (Executive Director), Jonathan Yglesias (Policy Director), and Ki’ara Montgomery (Member and Donor Liaison) from VSDVAA.

Drawing on lessons learned from public health and social change movements, Kristi, Jonathan, and Ki’ara discussed the risk factors for sexual harassment, the protective factors that make for a healthier workplace where harassment is less likely to happen, and benchmarks to ensure that sexual harassment is handled well when it does happen. The session included interactive elements, including tools for assessing risk and protective factors in your agency, which will be posted soon on the resource guide.  Also included are relevant blog articles from Nonprofit AF, Nonprofit Quarterly and Chronicle of Philanthropy.


Want to join our upcoming free Nonprofit Community Conversation: Engaging Community Voice on May 24th for a panel discussion with Ryan Rinn, Director of Storefront for Community Design, Albert Walker, Director of Healthy Communities at Bon Secours Health System, Mary Thompson, 65-year resident of Church Hill, and Chanel Bea, founding member of Engage Richmond.  The Engaging Community Voice panel will delve into the collective wisdom and experience of the panelists who have worked on issues of neighborhood planning, revitalization and design, community health, civic engagement, housing and other pressing issues that face our community. They will reflect on the diversity of ways they have engaged residents in community change as they actively dialogue with the audience about engaging community voice in their work.

Sign up quick, we’ve almost sold out.

You can also sign up for the complimentary course Engaging Community Voice on June 9th.  This is a 3 hour workshop that will help participants design and plan effective community engagement that is clear in the level of input, goals and impact, involves (and hopefully empowers) a diversity of community stakeholders, employs strong recruitment and communication strategies and utilizes a diversity of meeting types and tools.


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Help Somebody Spotlight: Shandra Thompson, Director of Operations and Programs, Dress for Success Central Virginia

The Help Somebody Hall of Fame celebrates and recognizes good people doing good work in our RVA community.  We encourage our readers to nominate nonprofit staff, volunteers, board members and community members.  This month, we’re recognizing Shandra Thompson – a staff member at Dress for Success Central Virginia.

Dress for Success Central Virginia is best known for providing professional attire to women reentering the workforce but we are about much more than simply a new outfit. Besides physically equipping a woman with apparel and accessories, our programs furnish her with a confidence that she carries forever and the knowledge that she can actively define her life, the direction she takes and what success means to her.Support from our donors ensures we can continue to offer our wide range of programs to women striving for economic empowerment. Your financial contribution is an investment that will generate tremendous benefits not just for the women we serve and their families but also for your community.Visit centralvirginia.dressforsuccess.org to learn more about how we are empowering women around the world and how you can get involved. #DressforSuccess #CentralVirginia #RVA #womensempowerment #economicindependence

Posted by Dress for Success Central Virginia on Saturday, March 4, 2017

Shandra was nominated by Dress for Success Central Virginia’s Executive Director, Shantell Malachi.  Shantell told us, “When I think of ‘help’ her name is the first that comes to mind. She really is the embodiment of the empathy and selflessness that is necessary to move Dress for Success’ mission forward and impact the lives of the women we serve.  On a personal level Shandra has allowed me to grow as a leader. Most Executive Directors have to wear many hats but Shandra allows me to delegate, focus on my personal and professional goals, and be physically present in the community, while never having to worry that our clients aren’t being served.”

Read more about Shandra’s story:

How does Shandra demonstrate the spirit of the “Help Somebody Hall of Fame”?

Shandra serves as the Director of Operations and Programs for Dress for Success Central Virginia.  The mission of Dress for Success is to empower women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.

As the Director of Operations and Programs, Shandra helps more than 250 women a year find appropriate professional attire and prepare for interviews. However, her empathy for her clients goes so much further than clothing and resumes. Shandra’s ability to establish personal relationships with each of her clients never ceases to amaze me.

Shandra serves women on such a high level because she cares to a degree that surpasses most people’s understanding. It’s hard to describe one time that she acted selflessly because it is embedded in her DNA.

Dress for Success clients can tell you that Shandra has helped them obtain emergency housing, restored their faith in God, healed emotional wounds, and provided a safe space for them physically and emotionally. She ministers to women outside of Dress for Success through her church and her business, New Beginnings Enterprises.

Shandra with Team Members from DFS


What is the impact of Shandra’s generosity? 

Because of her generosity she directly impacts the foundation of every family, the woman. She is helping women change the trajectory of their personal and professional lives through her service. She is lending a hand to fight against poverty by helping to heal the whole woman, not just a piece. It’s so refreshing to see someone give some much of themselves outside of the confines of 9-5.

Shandra with DFS Volunteers

About the Help Somebody Hall of Fame

The Help Somebody Hall of Fame is a platform to express gratitude for a person in the community who acts selflessly to improve the lives of others.  We want to share these stories in hope of inspiring more people in Greater Richmond to act with generosity.  There will be random drawing from those who are honored, and two honorees will select a nonprofit of their choice to receive $1000.  Read more about how to nominate someone here.

Read more →


News from the Community: Resident-Driven South Richmond Initiative Takes Shape

There’s a new local initiative that hopes to strengthen the Southside of Richmond with the input and direction of its residents. RVA Thrives is a project focusing on developing community-rooted initiatives and solutions along the Jeff Davis Corridor with the help of neighbors, nonprofits, funders, and local elected officials.

Recognizing a gap in resources and a need for community driven action, Altria, Robins Foundation, the Community Foundation, Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, and The Bob & Anna Lou Schaberg Fund at VNHC pooled collaborative funds to get RVA Thrives off the ground.

Last summer, community advocates led a robust Community Listening Process and prioritized three key issues – 1) Job Access 2) Neighborhood Beautification and 3) Neighborhood Safety. These three areas were then turned into working groups comprised of the cross-sector collaborators mentioned above. The working groups are currently researching and narrowing each issue into actionable and invest-able project proposals. They will continue to seek input and feedback from residents and stakeholders through community events and surveys.

In a recent press release, organizers said they want the Route 1 Corridor to “be a place where people come to raise their families, to work, to start a business, and to enjoy being part of the community. We want it to be a place where people come to shop, eat, and play. We are working diligently to be a place inclusively on the rise and to lead the way in redevelopment that does not push people out, but rather incorporates the wisdom, passion, energy, and leadership of neighbors already along the corridor.”

On Saturday, April 21, RVA Thrives is leading Corridor “Clean Up Day” from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m., followed by lunch. At lunch, information will be shared about how to take further steps toward the beautification and thriving of the corridor and its surrounding neighborhoods. There will be door prizes and a free raffle at lunch for all who participate in the cleanup event!

If you are interested in signing up to help on April 21st, please go to www.thrivingcitiesgroup.com/rva-events.

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ConnectVA Spotlight: Sarah Hale, Executive Director, Urban Hope

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Sarah Hale, and I am the Executive Director of Urban Hope. For most of my career, I was in residential interior design. What I loved most about that work was the ability to improve the everyday lives of families through effective design, and it left me longing for a deeper, broader impact. We all understand the power of home, for better or for worse, and I came to Urban Hope with the intent of helping our city improve the prospects of home for those who need better.

What is the focus of your work?

Urban Hope exists to make home a cornerstone of opportunity. When someone comes into the Urban Hope family, we want it to be the beginning of a positive trajectory that will improve all areas of their life; we focus on housing, as it has such a profound effect on all areas of life, including health, education, and employment.

It is our aim that clients who come to us receive inspiring, solid financial instruction, and are given the support they need to improve their financial picture. For those who are financially ready, we provide safe, affordable, high quality housing in the East End.

The real estate market in the East End is challenging right now for those who need lower rent or are looking to purchase a home on a modest income. To address this, Urban Hope aims to secure and maintain as much affordable rental housing in the East End as possible, so that existing residents, especially long-time residents, are not forced to leave the neighborhood. We also have a homeownership option for those of our clients who are able to purchase a house, and we operate on a lease-to-purchase arrangement.

Urban Hope occupies a special niche in that we serve mostly families and individuals who make 50% or less – often much less – than the area median income. This is a challenging bracket in which to work; often folks who are at this income level are one flat tire away from devastating financial setback. It is our intent that with education, mentorship, and encouragement, more people will be able to improve their financial situation and achieve housing stability.

The year is ending soon! Will you help us close the gap?Visit www.urban-hope.org/donors/give-now/ to make a donation today!Help Urban Hope finish 2016 strong for all the right reasons– bringing shalom to our city!

Posted by Urban Hope on Wednesday, December 28, 2016

ABOVE: A video about Urban Hope’s mission to “bring families home”

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

The most rewarding thing about our work is the knowledge that what we do all day, every day, is very tangibly helping to improve the lives of our clients, as well as the future of this neighborhood, and by extension, our city. We envision a thriving community where everyone can feel at home; when we are securing affordable housing that will stay affordable, we are working toward that vision.

What are some major challenges you have faced and how have you handled them?

Well, as I mentioned, the real estate market is truly a challenge – and one of our biggest. We always have our ear to the ground to discover houses that will be solid properties for our portfolio, but real estate investors are making that increasingly challenging. For example, properties that might have been affordable at auction often now sell for well over what we feel is prudent to spend, as they must be purchased virtually sight-unseen. Speculators with deep pockets can and do pay top prices, and often hold on to abandoned properties without improving them, in hopes that their investments will appreciate. Instead, these properties sit untouched, and blight remains.

As mentioned in this 2017 article by Bob Adams and Laura Lafayette, the General Assembly has cleared the way for Virginia to create land banks. It is our hope, along with the authors’, that the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust will become the home of Richmond’s land bank, providing a better avenue for Urban Hope and other affordable housing nonprofits to acquire properties and develop them for the good of the city.

One great thing is that we have had properties donated to us, which is a huge blessing, and a great way to make a big impact, for those who are able. We continue to scout for properties that will make good homes, properties that are in solid shape and worthy of our hard work.

What would someone be surprised to know about your organization?

Something that is special about Urban Hope that I think might surprise people is that we are almost entirely privately funded; our model is impact investing, whereby investors place their money with Urban Hope for a modest return. At the end of their agreement with Urban Hope, their original investment is returned to them, or reinvested for more creation of affordable housing.

This is a great way for investors to make a huge impact and get a return, all at the same time. It’s a double bottom line, and people do well by doing good!

Do you have any interesting initiatives or programs on the horizon?

Urban Hope offers engaging and informative financial instruction; our Money Smart classes are held monthly and are proving to be a very practical and effective help for those who attend faithfully. As part of this initiative, we have financial mentors who volunteer to help our clients work through their finances.

We also are planning our next round of acquisitions and renovations, which we hope will begin soon. This summer, we will be raising funds that will go, in part, toward lowering the renovation cost of our newest house, which will then lower the rent when it is complete.

This summer, we will be creating the Elevate Fund, which will help our tenants when they have challenges meeting their rent. Instead of resorting to payday loans, title loans, or other costly methods sometimes used to borrow money, tenants will be able to borrow from this fund at a modest 5% return, and as they repay that debt, they will be repairing their credit, and keeping a roof over their heads at the same time.

ABOVE: A recent video by ABC 8 News on Urban Hope’s Director of Housing and Family Services, Carolyn Lofton.

Is your organization involved in any exciting collaborations or partnerships?

Urban Hope is a member of RCDA (Richmond Community Development Alliance). We also are a member of the housing action team with Richmond Promise Neighborhoods, and we collaborate with the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building in the focus area of housing. We participated in the city’s 2017 Housing Summit and will continue to collaborate as invited. Urban Hope collaborates with the Neighborhood Resource Center for financial and job counseling. In addition, some of our clients receive down payment grants from HOME (Housing Opportunities Made Equal). We partner with Entrust Financial Credit Union to help facilitate our financial counseling. We participate in Transformation in Action, a group dedicated to the betterment of the commercial corridor on 25th Street. One of our staffers sits on the board of the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust, and we also participate in The Gathering (a group of local organizations founded on Christian principles), and BlessRVA (a group of local ministry leaders focused on effective collaboration for the City of Richmond).

Additionally, we have been awarded a sizable grant from the City of Richmond’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and we are looking forward to putting those funds to good use in our next round of renovations.

How are you leveraging ConnectVA to achieve your mission?

We use ConnectVA to seek collaborations and resources we believe would help our clients and our mission. It makes us deeply hopeful that with increased connections and improvements in communication and collaboration, we can make some real, tangible progress in addressing the challenges faced by the citizens of our great city.

Anything else you would like to share?

It is my hope that we can find many more people who would like to engage with the challenges of affordable housing. Urban Hope has many ways to engage; check out our website to see all the options http://www.urban-hope.org! That said, we are one of several terrific organizations working on affordable housing in Richmond, and we are happy to be counted among these hard-working folks. Thanks for reading!

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ConnectVA Spotlight: Beth Roach, James River Association

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Beth Roach, and I’m the Grants Manager for the James River Association, the only nonprofit solely dedicated to protecting the James River watershed from the headwaters to the Chesapeake Bay. My conservation career began back in 2004 with Virginia State Parks; over the course of 7 years, I served as volunteer, seasonal interpreter, conservation intern, park ranger, chief ranger, and environmental programs manager. After my park work, I gained skills in exhibit design, volunteer management, and most recently, nonprofit accounting and administration. I am an enrolled member of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of VA and serve on the Tribal Council. As a Councilwoman, I’m a storyteller and I manage environmental programs. Recently, I was elected Vice Chair of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice. I have a degree in History with a concentration in Public History from James Madison University.

What is the focus of your work?

I write and manage grants that support our core programs: Advocacy, Community Conservation, Education, Riverkeeper, and Watershed Restoration. The James River Association was founded in 1976 by a group of citizens who were gravely concerned about the health of the James River. Years leading up to ‘76, Kepone was being dumped in the river in Hopewell. This resulted in the James River being shut down to fishing for 13 years. In addition to the Kepone, poor stormwater management, sewage treatment, and farming practices also led to the degradation of the James River. Fast forward to 2018, the James River is regarded as one of the most resilient rivers in the nation. The 2017 State of the James report rated the health as a B-, which shows strong gains in fish and wildlife populations, habitat restoration, pollution reductions, and protection and restoration actions. While there is much to be celebrated, we know there is still much to do regarding sediment pollution, stormwater runoff, toxic floodwaters, and eroding shorelines. Our work addresses problems facing the James from the top down and the bottom up! We work with legislators, students, teachers, families, government officials, other nonprofits, and citizen volunteers.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

I was raised along the shores of the Lower James River and spent most of my childhood swimming in the brackish water downstream from Hopewell. The James River was still closed to fishing when I was born. That ban lasted throughout my childhood and undoubtedly influenced the direction of my life’s work. I’m proud to now be a part of an amazing team of dedicated stewards of the river. Over the course of 4 years, I have helped to raise over $3 million dollars of restricted funding to support our work. That equates to thousands of trees planted, over 20,000 students educated, millions of dollars in stormwater funding protected, and hundreds of volunteer projects implemented!

What are some major challenges you have faced and how you handled them?

As any fundraising professional knows, maintaining consistent funding is a challenge as the philanthropic landscape constantly changes. Staying on top of trends can be tricky. One avenue that has helped me is working with the Central Virginia Chapter of the Grant Professionals Association. We meet quarterly to share best practices and just support each other. While our realms are quite different, we often all face the same external and internal challenges. I now serve on the board of directors for the chapter as co-chair of programs. This allows me to identify areas in which I need help. Most of the time – we all need the same boost of training!


What would someone be surprised to know about your organization?

Ultimately, I want people to realize how amazing the James River is. How it’s more than our drinking water, it’s also a source of renewal and resilience. A lot of people think the river is unsafe for recreation. After a heavy rain, there may be cause for concern, but most of the time it is ok. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, we post weekly water quality monitoring reports to help folks track how the water is by location. Check it out! www.JamesRiverWatch.org

Do you have any interesting initiatives or programs on the horizon?

We do! This spring we are destined to plant over 3,500 trees to restore riparian buffers. That is by far more than we have ever planted in one season before. This is part of a 3-year grant with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. We also just launched a 3-year grant with NOAA Bay Watershed Education Training Program to work with all 5,100 sixth graders in the City of Richmond. We hope to hear soon about a green infrastructure program that will involve 5 libraries in the City of Richmond. Last year, we kicked off our Paint Out Pollution initiative, which involves implementing storm drain murals with native fish and fauna. Keep an eye out for more of those popping up around the Richmond Region!

Is your organization involved in any exciting collaborations or partnerships?

Partnerships are critical to our success. We work closely with the Capital Region Collaborative to lead the James River Work Group. We work with all school districts in the Greater Richmond Region. We have a strong relationship with the National Park Service and recently acquired a tract of land near Turkey Island Creek to connect with the Cap to Cap Trail. We recently opened up an outfitter service in the Upper James and we also just opened a new facility on the Colonial Parkway in Williamsburg/James City County. We also work with the James River Park System, James River Outdoor Coalition, James River Advisory Council, Middle James Roundtable and so many more.


How are you leveraging ConnectVA to achieve your mission?

For us to understand what needs exist, JRA has to keep our finger on the pulse of what is happening throughout the region. This site allows us to see what our partners are up to as well as what is happening in our communities. Also, ConnectVA is a great way for us to share meeting announcements for the Grant Professional Association.

Anything else you would like to share?

Please connect with us through one of our many programs! Either join us for a paddle on the James, become a River Hero Home, volunteer for our RiverRat program, or join and become a member – there are so many ways to help the James River.

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ConnectVA Spotlight: Verenda Cobbs, Program Director, Communities In Schools of Richmond (CIS)

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Verenda Cobbs and I serve as the Program Director for High Schools and Performance Learning Centers for Communities In Schools of Richmond (CIS). I hold a master’s in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University and have been in the human services field in some capacity since graduating from high school.

While at VCU I completed an internship at CIS that began my understanding of the impact of poverty on children and how outside issues (hunger, homelessness, lack of nutritional meals, etc.) can become barriers to learning when at school. I later completed internships at Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, Richmond Public Schools, and the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls. Each of these experiences provided a different perspective on the effects of poverty on children.

As I case-managed and worked with students I realized that resilience and having a strong support system in place played a significant role in their success. After graduation, I worked in both the mental health field and in community development for other nonprofit organizations.  Each of these opportunities helped prepare and lead me back to CIS.

I have been working with Communities In Schools of Richmond for four years – starting as a school Site Coordinator at John Marshall High School and transitioning to my current role in 2016. Without a shadow of a doubt I would say that I am now at my dream job!

What is the focus of your work?

Communities in Schools of Richmond (CIS) works in 39 K-12 public schools in Richmond and Henrico. Our goal is to support students by assessing student needs and establishing relationships with local businesses, social service agencies, health care providers, and parent and volunteer organizations to provide needed resources.

CIS focuses on five things that we feel every student needs to thrive:

  1.     Safe place to learn and grow
  2.     One-on-one relationship with a caring adult
  3.     Healthy start and a healthy future
  4.     Marketable skill to use upon graduation
  5.     Chance to give back to peers and community

Through a school-based site coordinator, CIS strategically aligns and delivers needed resources so that students can focus on learning. In this pivotal role, the CIS Site Coordinator works with school staff to identify students at risk of not graduating. They assess school and student needs and harnesses the external resources necessary to make a difference in the life of a child.

Verenda with Ms. Chapman & Ms. James – CIS Site Coordinators at Highland Springs High School

The CIS mission is to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life. Site coordinators often start by meeting basic needs such as food and school supplies. Soon, because they are dependable, consistent and positive, the CIS team begins to build relationships that will open opportunities to meet the more intensive needs of individual students.

CIS implements this model at every site – elementary, middle and high school – to ensure that students are connected to these basic needs so that they can succeed.  We’ve found that building a support network for students who lack resources is an undeniable piece of the puzzle that leads to strong student engagement and on-time graduation. But CIS does not work alone. During the last school year, there were more than 350 partners supporting Richmond and Henrico students and more than 1,200 volunteers who shared time with K-12 students. Together we were able to serve as a network of support to help students keep the doors of opportunity open. We are a link to positive relationships, mentors, emergency resources, community engagement and healthy activities for more than 18,000 students and families in Richmond and Henrico County.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

As a Program Director, the most rewarding part of my work is seeing my staff grow and develop. I have an absolutely amazing team of human service professionals that I get to champion every day!  I work with staff to develop data driven and evidence-based interventions and help them grow in their role as site coordinators.

We work together as a team to identify the challenges and issues their students are facing in school, at home, and in their community. By identifying these challenges, staff can engage in individual case-management and provide tiered levels of intervention and support to their student population. Each of the high school and Performance Learning Center staff has developed a unique vision for their school, which results in a stronger program and increased student engagement throughout the school year.

As an organization, I can say that the most rewarding part of our work is helping students succeed.  Success often starts with small steps –  a high five and smile in the hallway, attending school every day for a week, choosing to walk away from a negative situation instead of engaging –  and sometimes success looks like those last few steps across a stage at graduation, getting into a first-choice college, or having a game plan for after high school. Not many people have the honor and privilege of clearly seeing how their role at work changes lives. At CIS we help students succeed – to stay on track at school and make it to graduation – and helping students succeed is hands-down the most rewarding part of any job at CIS.


What are some major challenges you have faced and how you handled them?

I struggled like many of our students. Growing up in a single-parent home, I worked part-time through high school while balancing obligations of being the oldest of my siblings. I struggled academically during my transition to high school, experienced bullying, and had some challenges socially and emotionally. My high school experience was very difficult – and after failing out of the nursing technical education program that served my high school I was left with no plan for graduation. With the help of my guidance counselor and one of my friends, I was able to apply late to college and start in the spring instead of in the fall.  Had it not been for their guidance and interest in seeing me succeed, I don’t know where I would be now. This support system helped me through the financial aid process and connected me with resources to succeed in college – with their help I became the first person in my family to graduate from a four-year college. These experiences have helped me have a frame of reference as I work with both students and my team.

Sadly, my story is not unique. There are so many students in our region that need similar support.  At CIS we always need job mentoring/job shadowing experiences, career readiness enrichment, and training on financial planning, building healthy relationships, and mindfulness. At the high school level, it is common for parent engagement to decrease while mentoring, and enrichment programs are less available, thus requiring CIS staff to be creative in strategically creating programs that serve the needs of our students.

Site coordinators have developed mentoring programs and small groups that include interventions related to trauma-informed care and mindfulness, service learning, as well as parent engagement, resiliency, healthy relationships, and career-readiness. They do a phenomenal job implementing enrichment field trips, college tours and guest speakers to help the students on their caseload learn skills to help them prepare for graduation and success outside of school.


What would someone be surprised to know about your organization?

Although we have a variety of roles in our organization we all can work closely together to serve the needs of our students, families, our schools, and our community. Many of our staff serve on Citywide initiatives to support the larger community in areas of trauma informed care, mental health, workforce development, housing access and other areas of health/wellness.

Through our collaboration in these various initiatives we can work side by side with many other community organizations to support our students, not just at the school level but also at the community level. I think it is fair to say that for most CIS staff our role is not only a job, but an extension of our life’s work. We are engaged, excited, and enriched to provide for the students that we serve. Communities In Schools staff are passionate about the work and have extensive training to ensure that we are utilizing current evidence based interventions to serve our students.

Do you have any interesting initiatives or programs on the horizon?

Each year we have the opportunity to take 300 students from area middle and high schools downtown to the General Assembly Building and the Supreme Court of Virginia for Rule of Law Day.  Students can learn about the three branches of government and discuss unique challenges in how they affect their generation with lawmakers. This is a program that our students look forward to every year.

Students serve as Justices during their Mock Trial at Supreme Court of Virginia


Is your organization involved in any exciting collaborations or partnerships?

At CIS of Richmond we are thankful to partner with over 350 organizations throughout the Greater Richmond area. Our work would not be as robust without the support of these organizations and other area nonprofits. Together we are supporting over 18,000 students a year with mentors, lunch buddies, weekend food bags, grief counseling, reading partners, mindfulness moments — and more!

How are you leveraging ConnectVA and Community Foundation to achieve your mission?

The Community Foundation has been a long-time supporter of CIS of Richmond. We are so appreciative of this partnership that allows us to continue to support K-12 students who are at the greatest risk of dropping out.

ConnectVA has provided a wonderful resource to CIS. We post open positions through the ConnectVA website, share events through the site, and often check out the classifieds to see if any extra items might work for our CIS school sites.


Anything else you would like to share?

Here’s an inspirational video highlighting a George Wythe Highschool student, Alfredo and his CIS Coordinator Angela.

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Help Somebody Spotlight: Kris Folgner, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Richmond

How does Kris demonstrate the spirit of the “Help Somebody Hall of Fame”?  Kris serves as one of our House Volunteers at RMHC Richmond. Our House Volunteers help with the day to day tasks to keep our house operations running smoothly for up to 9 families to stay per night who have a child receiving medical treatment in Richmond. For the past 2 years, Kris has dedicated 3 hours every Wednesday to RMHC Richmond which has totaled in over 220 hours.

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A Local Platform for Thanks and Recognition

This April will mark the fifth year The Spark Mill and HandsOn Greater Richmond, a program of the Community Foundation, have partnered together to host the “Power of Good” – a celebration for National Volunteer Week to honor community members who are making positive change in the region.

The event page says, “As believers that nonprofits can and do change the world, and that volunteers are essential to making that happen, this is our platform of thanks. We want to recognize all those in the region and are asking nonprofits, faith communities, schools, friends, and family to submit the people they know who power good.”


Recognize Your Volunteers

The recognition element of the Power of Good is simple and straight-forward.  Just fill in the online form with the person’s information (and yours) and in 20 words or less, explain why they “power good in Greater Richmond”.   It can be a volunteer, a neighbor, a colleague, a family member or friend and you can submit as many names as you want, by April 9th.

The Power of Good form asks you to recognize a volunteer in 20 words or less.

The person will be notified of the recognition and invited to a celebration later in the month (more details below).  An interactive map on the website shows “where all the good work is being done in our region” – a new element added this year that plots out the various organizations where volunteers have been recognized.

Get Helpful Resources

On the Power of Good website there are recognition resources, ideas and tools for nonprofits to use during April’s National Volunteer Month/Week and throughout the year.  You can download a “thank you” postcard to send out, watch recognition webinars and learn about other national award opportunities.  There is also a place for nonprofits to publicize their own local volunteer recognition event, award, or campaigns to the rest of the community.

You can download “thank you” postcards to send to volunteers in the resource collection for National Volunteer month.

Celebrate the Power of Good

On Tuesday, April 17th, from 5:30-8:30pm, the organizers are hosting a free community celebration at Blue Bee Cider in Scott’s Addition. The event will be a chance to learn about the great work being done by Richmonders and the impact of volunteers across the region.  There will be a visual recognition of all the volunteers and everyone is invited to meet up with honorees, community organizations, and neighbors for food, cider, and fun. Honorees and those who submitted them will get a special treat at the event.  The Power of Good celebration event is family friendly and an open-house, drop in format. Tickets are required and can be reserved here:  https://powerofgoodcelebration2018.eventbrite.com.

The 2017 Power of Good celebration where 250 volunteers from 150 organizations were recognized on a wall display.

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