Left to right: CHAT CEO Percy Strickland, Terrance Burnett, after-school director Murray Withrow and Meoleaeke Watts Photo by Jay Paul
Conceptually, the Bethlehem Baptist Church parking lot in the city's East End seems a long way from the brine and breeze of the Chesapeake Bay, and Percy Strickland, the CEO of a nonprofit that mentors Church Hill's young residents, says as much during a chilly late-November news conference.
"I don't know if you know where you're standing this morning," Strickland tells a group of 20 or so bundled-up attendees. Over his left shoulder, stands a ramshackle, boarded-up house. "You're standing in the center of one of the highest concentrations of poverty, not just in Virginia but in the United States. You're standing in the middle of a food desert.
With the $180,000 grant he accepted that morning from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), Strickland hopes to remedy some of the challenges confronting young people served by Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT), the program he founded in 2002.
The money will go toward edible rain gardens planted and harvested by some of CHAT's 200-plus students. NFWF chose the project — under its Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund — because it should divert urban runoff through permeable, arable land, softening the impact on nearby waterways and, ultimately, the bay.
"Quite frankly, I'm astounded that we got funded," Strickland says. CHAT's mission — youth development — is an outlier among NFWF-funded projects, normally geared more toward municipalities and environmental groups.
The symbiosis of CHAT's proposal, though, won NFWF's vote. Strickland points to the benefits that will come to the program's participants: environmental awareness, job training and, of course, "good, healthy food that they wouldn't normally be exposed to."