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Look for the Helpers

As a virus lingers and protests against injustice fill the streets, here are some of those who are helping Richmond through it all.

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“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Mr. Rogers’ now oft-memed advice was meant to comfort children.

Today we’re seeing it as we doom scroll through social media because as adults, we find that message resonating more than ever.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider how we can become helpers ourselves.
We began this year with the start of a pandemic unlike any in the past century. By the end of May, we saw thousands take to the streets to protest racism that dates back even further.

Ordinary people have felt called to extraordinary acts. In some cases, those extraordinary acts had been happening daily for years, and we finally started paying attention.

Here are four people who have been operating, sometimes out of sight, to help make Richmond a better place for all of us.


 

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The Connector
Norm Gold, Developer and Operator of Market @ 25th

The Market @ 25th opened in 2019 with a mission to pay living wages and sell locally produced food from Black-owned businesses in the East End. Developer and operator Norm Gold, former chief operations officer at local nonprofit Feed More, has been open about how difficult it is to make the math work.

Then, Gold started seeing the news abroad about COVID-19. His role as president of Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster had given him the foresight to take early action: “We started getting the store ready to handle anything.”

Leaders across the spectrum of human services have turned to Gold for help. By March, he had been asked by the Richmond Public Schools to put together food bags for students as stay-at-home orders began rolling out.

Senior Connections, The Capital Area Agency on Aging, asked Gold for assistance when its Friendship Cafes, which serve hundreds of low-income older adults, were forced to abruptly cease operations. The Market @ 25th began delivering food to Feed More, where Senior Connections staff and volunteers pack boxes to deliver to elders and people living with disabilities.

Gold has also been coordinating with volunteers from Richmond schools to bag food for people experiencing homelessness. For months, the team twice weekly filled more than 200 bags of nonperishables to distribute. It now provides about 300 bags a week, including an expanded selection such as bottles of milk.

When it comes to serving the community, Gold takes a multipronged approach. He prioritizes hiring locally, providing training and seeking to stabilize families. It’s important to hire felons, he says. He focuses on his ability to make a difference.

Gold did the legwork to engage with groups like the Central Virginia African American Chamber of Commerce and is proud to work with 65 local vendors, the majority of whom are minority-owned businesses.

“It’s about serving the community and helping the community,” he adds. “Our mission is to serve people.”


 

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The Listener
Janei Lofty, community network manager with Enterprise Community Development

When COVID-19 first hit, many of the residents of Highland Park Senior Apartments and the Rosa in Jackson Ward were scared.

Secluded in their apartments, they watched and waited. Now the vibe is a bit more, “When is this going to be over?” says Janei Lofty, who serves as community network manager for these and other communities through her role with Enterprise Community Development.

As more information and data emerge, deaths continue to rise, and the residents find themselves in all the highest risk categories, Lofty is there to help.

Lofty, a Maryland transplant who has lived in Richmond since 2003, recently completed a master’s degree in gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her work amid the coronavirus has been focused on solving, “How do we reach folks in their apartments? How do we build resilience in that space?”

Many elders in these communities work and some have lost their jobs. Lofty helps them navigate unemployment and other benefits. She encourages them to take care of themselves and safely visit care providers.

“Everyone is at a different base line as it relates to technology,” Lofty says, because of accessibility to devices or skill level with usage. She helps people find resources that are safe.

Helping others in the pandemic has been about more than meeting basic needs. People are reaching new levels of self-actualization. Lofty has been celebrating a resident who she says has always been crafty, but has unlocked her passion for creativity in amazing ways. She began with paint from Dollar Tree, then invested in other types of paint from Walmart, and then Michael’s. “Now she’s picking up the violin,” Lofty says.

The hundreds of elders she works with often have more than 80 years of stories about living in Richmond to share with her – “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Lofty says.

Residents of Highland Park Senior Apartments and the Rosa moved into these buildings from Faye Towers, a Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority property.

“They ended up in the projects because of redlining,” Lofty says. Redlining, a discriminatory program that impacted home ownership and lending based on the racial composition of neighborhoods, started in the 1930s.

For elders, practices like redlining are not only part of Richmond’s white supremacist history, but a lived experience. They tell Lofty how some things have changed but some things are still the same. Lofty has “access to the untold part of history,” she says.

“They light up when they talk about Thalhimers and Miller and Rhoads, how great it was to go downtown when ladies wore hats and gloves,” Lofty says. “That’s what you did on Saturday. People genuinely looked out for each other. They also can tell you racial experiences. The clothes they bought that were too big because they weren’t allowed to try them on.”

Lofty says community motivates her. The work to make sure elders have a voice in the community drives her forward.

“I love what I do. I wouldn’t change it for the world,” she says. “This is what I’m meant to do.”


 

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The Defender
Julie McConnell, director of the Children’s Defense Clinic and clinical law professor at the University of Richmond

Early in the summer of protests ignited after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Mayor Levar Stoney enacted a curfew that resulted in many Richmonders’ arrests.

“A lot of people got arrested in Richmond for violating curfew … and no other crime,” says Julie McConnell, a University of Richmond clinical law professor and director of the Children’s Defense Clinic. “The people arrested were not doing necessarily anything else and it would not ordinarily be a crime.”

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin announced she would not seek jail time for these charges, but the decision has another consequence: Those charged are not entitled to court-appointed lawyers. With more than 200 arrests, even those eligible for representation would have overwhelmed the Richmond Public Defender’s Office.

A group of lawyers were quick to step up and volunteer, including McConnell.

The RVA Legal Collaborative comprises “some of the best criminal defense attorneys in the area,” she explains. “They want to make sure these folks have appropriate representation on charges they believe are related to exercising free speech and standing up for injustice.”

McConnell, who has lived in Richmond since the late ’80s, says most people taking to the streets are not committing crimes beyond violating the mayor’s order. Several are minors and she’s taken on their cases pro bono.

“In theory, the government shouldn’t be able to stop them from doing what they’re doing,” she says. “They imposed these new restrictions on their speech to arrest them. Their goal is to get them to move. They can be standing there not doing anything and the only way to make them leave is to have them commit a crime.”

In reaction to what they are seeing as unjust practices, the legal community is rising to the occasion in several major ways. The law school’s associate dean for library and information services, Roger Skalbeck, helped obtain software to catalog police body-camera footage. McConnell and Tara Casey, director of the university’s Carrico Center for Pro Bono and Public Service, have worked with 25 law students who volunteered to assist. The students provide research and review body-cam footage.

With these illuminating tools in hand, McConnell says the arrests reflect what she’s seen in Richmond throughout her career.

“I see this deep implicit bias against poor Black kids and poor brown kids,” McConnell says. “They are assumed to be dangerous until proven otherwise.”

“Until there is a real conversation and a reckoning about how people of color have been treated, people will continue to protest. And they should,” McConnell says. “We should be proud of these young people. What they’re doing is noble, not criminal.”

She would like to see and hear support for protesters from the mayor, the commonwealth’s attorney, police and other city leadership – including dropping protest charges. She says that gesture would show that city leadership respects how protesters have helped Richmond evolve.

“It would help our city heal,” McConnell says. “It would start the path of doing more than just symbolic change.”


 

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The Head, Heart and Hands
Marsha Bly, certified nursing assistant

Marsha Bly recently discovered a new talent: writing. She took part in a collaborative art project called Stretching My Hands Out, which recently exhibited at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, then City Hall.

“It excited me, because I didn’t expect that,” says Bly, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) who has lived in Richmond’s West End since she was a small child. “The project helped me grow in a sense that I didn’t know I was capable of.”

Stretching My Hands Out, a collaboration between nonprofit organization Family Lifeline and artists Gigi Amateau and Penelope Carrington, focuses on direct care providers: CNAs and personal care aides (PCAs). The experience emphasized photography, storytelling, poetry and writing. Funded in part by a Richmond Memorial Health Foundation Health Equity and Arts grant, its exhibit now resides at the foundation’s headquarters.
In addition to uncovering a talent for writing, Bly says the project led to a friendship among the nine women who participated. They were planning another gathering when the pandemic hit.

Suddenly, more people are aware of the importance of what Bly and her friends and colleagues do for a living. “Now they realize the scope of how so many people depend on us just to survive every day,” she says.

Without CNAs or PCAs, “a lot of people don’t have a caregiver at all, until that person comes in. They are totally dependent on that caregiver. In this pandemic, they wouldn’t have anyone.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, direct care is the largest job sector in the country. Across care settings, 4.5 million PCAs and CNAs deliver services and support to older adults and people with disabilities.

The home care workforce will add more new jobs than any other single occupation in the U.S., according to New York-based PHI. The organization is releasing a series of reports called Direct Care Work is Real Work, noting that “disrespect of its workforce runs deep in our society.”

A few months before the pandemic came to the U.S., the artistic team of Stretching My Hands Out highlighted statistics that begin to tell the story of the direct-care workforce.

“In the U.S., we entreat women, particularly women of color, to care for those dearest to us, as well as those with no one to turn to,” the group says on its website. “Women comprise 94% of direct care providers in Virginia – a sector that is growing but lacking fair wages and respect.”

There has been some movement in the General Assembly toward pressuring Gov. Ralph Northam to mandate hazard pay and paid leave to workers filling these critical roles. As the pandemic continues, Bly notes that the need will only grow. In the meantime, she hears of direct care workers who often lack access to masks and even gloves to perform their roles.

Even amid these pressures, she wouldn’t give it up. Bly became a certified nursing assistant 35 years ago and has worked in home care for 26 years. “I will do it for the rest of my career,” she says.

“Even if I go to school and become a nurse, I’ll probably still do home care regardless,” she continues. “I realize some people actually need somebody there all the time. Sometimes we’re the only ones they do have.”

Stretching My Hands Out can be experienced at stretchingmyhandsout.com.

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