Richmond social services agency turns 90

4/27/2013 9:15 AM
By Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Around the turn of the 20th century, a small band of nurses rented a house and began offering free health care to the poor.

This nurses' settlement — funded by philanthropist Grace Arents — later took on social workers, organized community recreation and offered cooking, hygiene and infant-care classes.

In April 1923, the social workers split from the nurses and organized under a new charter. William Byrd Community House was born with the goal of strengthening the low-income Oregon Hill neighborhood.

The settlement house movement was "an attempt to bring people who had education and resources into neighborhoods where those things were missing," said Jody McWilliams, executive director of William Byrd Community House from 1971 to 2004.

As it celebrated its 90th anniversary Saturday with a benefit at Historic Tredegar, William Byrd Community House has retained some of the functions of that early settlement house and added new ones.

One of its newer missions revolves around the sustainable food movement. In 2007, the agency established a community garden and a farmers market behind its South Cherry Street building. And three years ago, volunteers at the Byrd House Farmlet began growing fresh produce to stock the agency's food pantry and give to families participating in the children's summer camp.

Shelia Givens, William Byrd's executive director, said the Grace Arents Community Garden, the tiny farm and the Byrd House Market have increased awareness of the agency.

"That is our largest marketing tool," she said. "It has also changed the way our families eat."

William Byrd Community House was the first social services agency in Virginia to receive funding from the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces to establish the community garden and farmers market. The Byrd House Market, which opens its season May 7, accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

"Transforming Lives . Building Self-Sufficiency" is the mission of the agency. That's no simple task when 100 percent of the families you serve are at or below federal poverty guidelines. William Byrd, bolstered by up to 1,000 volunteers annually, is seeking more community investment.

"Like all nonprofits, the biggest challenge is funding," Givens said. Her agency is concentrating its efforts on new individual donors.

For the fiscal year that ended last June, William Byrd Community House received 16,000 phone calls asking for emergency food, housing or utilities assistance, Givens said.

"Each year it's increasing, unfortunately," she said. "Some people who used to be donors are now our customers."

Besides family support, the agency provides early childhood education, subsidized child care, and summer programs. It provides case-management services for the family of each enrolled child. And to fight childhood obesity, the agency emphasizes healthy eating, with children learning from seed to plate about food they grow with their own hands.

"I really think that one of the things that keeps them around is their addressing the needs of the neighborhood in very real kinds of ways," McWilliams said. "They're providing very basic services that people need.

"As city resources diminish and as school resources diminish, William Byrd is able to be there and provide services that people value."

McWilliams helped expand William Byrd's mission and reach during his 33-year tenure as director, steering it through Richmond's history of racial polarization.

"When I went there, it was primarily an organization that served the Oregon Hill neighborhood," he recalled. It operated recreation programs out of the old Rotary Boys Club.

William Byrd, at the time, was a membership organization entrenched in a historically white working-class community with a reputation for intolerance. "We were the country club for low-income neighbors," McWilliams recalled.

A survey indicated that the neighborhood wanted to keep William Byrd free of outsiders. McWilliams and the agency decided on a different course: "Instead of keeping them out, we're going to cast our net wider."

William Byrd expanded its reach into the predominantly black Randolph, Maymont and Carver neighborhoods and became "more social work-oriented, addressing critical personal needs" such as emergency food assistance and counseling. The agency forged partnerships with other local service providers. "And we tried to listen to the people that we served and try to figure out how we could serve them better."

McWilliams says in reflection that expanding the agency's reach was not only the right thing to do, but the only viable path. Oregon Hill was gentrifying, and the clientele base was shrinking.

Ana Edwards, William Byrd's market and library programs manager, says the past several years have seen the agency's clientele move toward a greater reflection of Richmond's growing immigrant population. A few Hispanic, Asian and African children have joined what had been a primarily African-American clientele.

Still, Oregon Hill's history remains ingrained in the fabric of the agency, which moved into its current home, the Grace Arents Community Library Building, in 1947.

It retains one room as a community library, a place William Byrd social worker Mike Culver knows well. His family has lived in Oregon Hill for five generations, and he visited the library as a child.

This is his second stint at William Byrd Community House. "There is a genuineness and intimacy here that keeps people invested," said Culver, 56.

More than a century after nurses and social workers introduced the resettlement concept to Richmond, William Byrd provides essential resources to Richmond's most vulnerable families. That's an achievement worth celebrating and perpetuating.


Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch,

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