Passionate leaders and small, dedicated staffs. We asked local nonprofits leaders to suggest colleagues doing great work under the radar. Here are five.
Nominated by Groundwork RVA’s Giles Harnsberger
(Photo courtesy TheatreLAB)
Cofounders Deejay Gray and Annie Colpitts found early success in Richmond theater, and now they’re paying it forward with TheatreLAB. They met at Firehouse Theatre and began an internship theater program there in 2012. “There seemed to be a need and desire for this kind of work, for an attention to emerging artists,” Gray says.
Now an independent nonprofit, TheatreLAB resides in The Basement, in the heart of the Arts District, where it stages full seasons of plays and nurtures an ensemble community of young artists and performers. The Basement allows flexible seating for 75. “When you’re that up close and personal with the performance, it almost feels like you’re eavesdropping on the actors,” Gray says.
This season features two more productions, with “Venus in Fur” running through May 7 and “Tribes” opening in July. The Cellar Series, “a second season of four shows with shorter runs, smaller budgets, and edgier, unknown or new scripts,” runs concurrently.
“I think the theater art form is vital. Our capacity as humans to share stories and experience is the most important gift that we have,” say Gray. “Feeling like I’m a part of the next generation of the arts in Richmond is truly thrilling.”
Nominated by Communities in Schools of Chesterfield’s Jay Swedenborg
Kim Hill started volunteering at Chesterfield Food Bank on “potato detail,” and, within a few months, she quit her job to help Travis and Karie Whittle run it.
“Most people are two or three paychecks away from needing help with food,” says Hill, now food bank director. “It touched my heart, to see the change in people’s lives, because they felt accepted.”
The Whittles struggled to make ends meet as a young couple expecting a child, but they earned too much to qualify for assistance. Some years and a successful business later, they started the food bank with their own money, initially serving 30 to 60 people a week.
Now, five staff members and hundreds of volunteers feed nearly 1,200 people from eight different distribution centers. “We believe in giving people a good week’s worth of groceries — fresh vegetables, meat, breads, dairy,” says Hill.
The food bank relies on donations of food and money, as well as some county government and School Board funding. It also provides free GED classes, substance abuse meetings, tutoring and job readiness classes. This summer, it will again provide groceries to families who rely on free and reduced-price school lunches.
RVA Nominated by Amy Strite of Family Lifeline
Photo courtesy of Girls Rock! RVA
Girls Rock! RVA is challenging patriarchy one rock ‘n’ roll summer camp at a time.
At its sixth camp this year, the nonprofit will welcome around 55 girls, gender non-conforming and transgender youth, and send home musicians a week later.
“We wish we had a camp like this growing up,” says Patty Conway, Girls Rock! vice president, of her fellow volunteers, who fund the organization with donations and grants. Inspired by a documentary about a similar camp in Portland, Oregon, a group of activists in the feminist and queer community volunteered there and returned to Richmond to start their own.
Campers ages 8 to 14 are assigned an instrument, grouped into bands, and tasked with writing songs for a showcase performance on a professional stage. Free of cost, the camp seeks to empower the girls musically through activism and arts education.
Girls Rock! recruits aspiring rockers in schools and districts where music education is less readily available. “They learn from their experience at camp that they have the power to demand space in other areas — creatively, academically, professionally, socially, or politically,”
The organization loans its instruments to youth the rest of the year through the Free Richmond Instrument Lending Library at Richmond Public Library’s main branch.
Nominated by Sports Backers’ Jon Lugbill
(Photo courtesy RVA More)
If you’ve biked, walked or run along the James River in the last decade, you’ve benefitted from the collective toil of RVA MORE, Richmond’s chapter of the Mid-Atlantic Off Road Enthusiasts.
Formed in 2005, RVA MORE uses volunteers to maintain and grow the river’s trail network. “If you go back 15 years, there was a lot less opportunity to stay in Richmond and ride a bike,” says RVA MORE president Greg Rollins.
Though most volunteers are mountain bikers, RVA MORE — in partnership with the James River Park System — builds and improves the trails with bikers, hikers, walkers and runners in mind. Its vision for and advocacy of a full loop of trails has been incorporated into city plans.
Recently, its volunteers built seven miles of trails at Pocahontas State Park. It now oversees 75 miles of trails.
“The Richmond region has some of the best urban off-road dirt trails in the country,” Lugbill says. “[RVA MORE does] all of this work by blood, sweat and a lot of passion.”
Nominated by Neighborhood Resource Center of Greater Fulton’s Cheryl Groce-Wright
In an unassuming building on Hull Street, the 38 beds at Liberation Family Services (LFS) are more than just a place to sleep for homeless veterans.
With a small staff of mostly social workers, the organization focuses on connecting clients with health care benefits, substance abuse counseling, and employment opportunities. “Our guys can stay up to a year, but the average length of stay is less than six months,” says CEO Jay Patrick. “We get them to a place where permanent housing will be sustainable.”
Three years ago, the nonprofit Freedom House, which served the homeless, closed due to lack of funding. Patrick kept its transitional facility alive as Liberation Family Services, with full capacity and a waiting list. “Military vets are some of the bravest individuals in this country, but the truth is that military combat comes with a great deal of stresses and anxieties that people don’t know about,” he says.
Federal funds offer primary support, but scaled for 12 beds only. The rest comes from individuals and grants, many from church communities like Liberation Church, where Patrick serves as minister.
“LFS is one program still offering a comprehensive, more long-term approach, allowing residents to stay long enough to address the myriad of life circumstances that lead to their homelessness in the first place,” writes Groce-Wright.