A Yankee like me has a long way to go in learning about the past and present of a city as immersed in history as Richmond. In just over two years since moving from New Jersey to the Richmond suburbs, it’s been exciting to slowly explore and learn about the amazing places, people and events of this great river city. The future, in many ways, looks bright here, but there are still many areas of great need. When my wife and I took a Segway tour of downtown last summer, we saw the Capitol, Canal Walk, and Shockoe Bottom, but it didn’t include impoverished Church Hill in the East End of Richmond.
Like most places in Richmond where you can hardly turn around without bumping into something historic, Church Hill includes the city’s original thirty-two blocks as well as St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Patrick Henry delivered his famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775. It also has one of the highest poverty rates in the country and is situated between five of the city’s largest housing projects. A recent study presented in the Richmond Times-Dispatch stated that living in the East End lowers one’s life expectancy by 20 years due to not just crime but more often issues like diet, nutrition and housing. Church Hill also has a tremendous need to reach into the lives of the children who live there. The statistics tell part of the story – only 25 percent of mothers are married, 50 percent finish high school and only 10 percent go to college.
Earlier this week, I went to Church Hill over lunch to meet with someone on the staff of a group that is actively trying to make a difference. Church Hill Activities & Tutoring, or CHAT, is a non-profit group that works with kids in the Church Hill neighborhoods. As I drove off the highway and onto the side streets, I recognized a few turns from a time when I’d tried to find a shortcut between the running shoe store in chic Carytown and the airport on my way to a business trip. I remembered rolling up my windows and double checking my GPS. This time around, with a fresh goal in mind, I more clearly saw an interesting combination of streets with well-kept houses and nice corner restaurants busy serving lunch, mixed with streets whose buildings were boarded-up, rundown and out of business. I was excited to experience Church Hill, but also, if I’m being honest, felt out of place and anxious about what I would find and where I would park my car.
Caitlin Barnes, CHAT Communications and Development Director, described to me how CHAT began in 2001 when Percy and Angie Strickland from the West End suburbs of Richmond went “all in” to invest in the Church Hill community – they bought a home and moved into the neighborhood. To be clear, this wasn’t a real estate investment strategy. Church Hill isn’t Manhattan’s Upper West Side where folks tried to get in early before home prices skyrocket. The Stricklands moved to Church Hill with a heart to serve the people of the neighborhood, show God’s love, and work to demonstrate what community could look like to folks that had too often been left out. They found that a good way to help meet those needs was to provide afterschool help with homework and a place to connect with kids.
CHAT’s vision is Opening Homes, Transforming Lives, Rebuilding Communities. What started with the Stricklands grew to include other families. They literally open up their homes to provide programs that include tutoring, life-skills training, leadership programs, community events, summer camps and more. A group of 28 staff, nearly all of which now live in the community, and over 300 more volunteers work to demonstrate what Isaiah 58 calls “true fasting” – sharing their food, clothing, homes and skills with others around them in need. They’ve developed strong internship programs with local institutions like University of Richmond and VCU and are building a network of committed support-based staff and volunteers who share the mission of making a difference in this needy community.
CHAT works to “give young people opportunities to learn, work and live in a network of relationships that provides opportunities to make transformative and culture-changing decisions.” Five homes in the neighborhood now run tutoring programs that serve over 100 community children, in addition to classes like cooking, woodworking, dancing, drama, basketball and Bible study. In 2007, Church Hill Academy was opened to meet the needs of at-risk high schoolers who likely wouldn’t make it through school otherwise. In the 2012/13 school year, twenty-eight students attended the Academy with five graduating seniors.
I came away from my trip to Church Hill with an appreciation for the difference that a dedicated group of families can make. Too often I fear that we are content to sit back in our relatively cushy bubble in whichever suburbs we live in and just feel bad that there are people in worse off situations. Occasionally we’ll open our checkbooks and give, which is great, but I can’t help thinking that there is a lot more to be done. To be clear, I am squarely in this boat too. In my mind, I have a picture of instilling in my three boys a spirit of serving those who have less, but I wonder if I’m really doing anything to model that behavior. Am I really just writing a check and worrying about where to park my car? I hope that after experiencing a short glimpse of Church Hill up close and learning about the sacrificial work by the team at CHAT, I will make more of a priority to return and help in the effort.
As you probably know if you’re reading this post, I’ll be releasing my new middle-grade children’s book, Summer of the Woods, in the coming weeks. Sam and Derek, the two young brothers in the book, aren’t the only kids that crave adventure. Whether near the woods in the country or amidst tall buildings and the busy urban streets of a city like Richmond, every child needs exciting ways to explore their imagination, excel in learning and have fun. In this spirit, ten percent of the sales of Summer of the Woods will be donated to the great work of CHAT. I hope you will join me in getting involved with CHAT or another group that helps kids in your area.