The Gaines Family
to the Fullest
When the Montrose Heights post office closed in 1998, few people beyond Williamsburg Road in Richmond's East End cared.
Residents of Fulton, Fulton Hill and Montrose Heights, however, felt differently. The post office served as a communal back fence. There, news passed of children and illnesses, school and church, comings and goings.
In 1998, not many in Fulton could have foreseen the transformation of the defunct post office into a community beacon called the Greater Fulton Neighborhood Resource Center (NRC).
Programs offered today include Montessori pre-school; GED classes; employment counseling; health and wellness services; computer training and access; a community garden; a music recording studio; and martial-arts and yoga classes.
Fulton sits between Church Hill and Powhatan Hill and was, until the late 1950s, a village neighborhood of stores, churches, a movie theater, restaurants and a school. The working-class population was a mix of black and white.
But during the 1960s, dependable businesses shuttered. Houses acquired by landlords deteriorated. The school closed. Fulton was obliterated between clumsy government renewal projects and floods.
Some longtime residents moved to nearby Fulton Hill or Montrose Heights. By the 1980s, the older houses were homes for artists, laborers and young urban dwellers. One of them was Mary Lou Decossaux ( pictured at left ), who became active in the community after her 1990 arrival.
She was a full-time development director at the William Byrd Community House and led the Richmond Living Wage Coalition. Born in Miami and raised in New Jersey, her background was in community organization and social justice. The idea for NRC came to her and wouldn't leave, despite having never started a nonprofit or run one.
"You don't think about the doubts," Decossaux says. "You just keep on target."
In 2000, single women headed 70 percent of Fulton's families, and 45 percent of the community's children lived in poverty. Half of Greater Fulton's residents older than 25 hadn't graduated high school.
The figures translated into violence, drug use, trashy streets and a sense of desperation. But Fulton wasn't giving in or giving up. Decossaux perceived potential and projected optimism.
She came by it naturally.
Her maternal grandfather, Jean Broué, left a French farming hamlet, Arrous, in the Pyrenees to tour the East Coast with a trained dancing bear.
After his dancing-bear days, he returned to Arrous, married a woman from the next village, and together they had seven children.
A cousin, nicknamed Sapou, ran the Sporting Club of Arrous. He organized musical groups, taught children the tango, held boxing matches and encouraged the youth to write fairy tales and songs. The club had its financial challenges, but, says Decossaux, "the young people who were in the village, including my mother, can sing those songs to this day."
The NRC campaign started with Decossaux's commitment to the East End community, along with several neighborhood believers who welcomed her enthusiasm. Joyce Monroe encouraged Decossaux to begin teaching GED classes in a rented room next to her beauty salon.
Fundraising for the purchase of the post office began in 2002 through neighborhood bake sales and car washes. Then, a businessperson pledged $150,000 for the purchase, which generated matching grants of about $230,000. But shortly before closing on the property, the donor realized that the funds weren't available. The matching grants would need to be returned.
At a dispirited gathering, Decossaux said that the group was back to about $20,000 with this loss. But Rose Pollard, an early NRC board member, told Decossaux, "Now look here, don't you quit five minutes before the miracle."
A few days later, while at home and calling foundations to explain the predicament, Decossaux heard her front gate open. An individual had come with a check for $50,000. "My attorney said, ‘Well, put it into the bank, and if it doesn't bounce, we're good.' "
The post office building was purchased on Dec. 3, 2003, and opened Jan. 9, 2005.
Over the past five years, more than 3,000 people have used the center, and the Valentine Richmond History Center recognized Decossaux and the NRC in October with its annual Richmond History Makers award.
Photos by Casey Templeton; Photo of Mary Lou Decossaux courtesy the Valentine Richmond History Center