In kind: Making our city a little brighter, one good deed at a time

Nancy Kechner is coach and surrogate mom for the athletes on the UVA women's rugby team. Photo: John Robinson Nancy Kechner is coach and surrogate mom for the athletes on the UVA women’s rugby team. Photo: John Robinson

Whether you think in terms of “random acts of kindness” or “points of light” or “it takes a village,” all around Charlottesville there are people who go out every day and do their part to make this city a more human place. It’s not their job, but it’s their work. While we, as a community, continue to tackle some big problems, here are a few stories of neighbors who are doing their best to make our town a little kinder.

A tip to remember

The idea came from a Christmastime Facebook post. Sandi and Jeannie (both asked that their last names not be used), friends since the days when their children attended Hollymead Elementary School, were inspired by a story about a group of women who meet every year for a holiday breakfast and leave a tip of $100–each. Sandi shared the post, with the comment “Who’s hungry?” They easily recruited seven more women, set a breakfast date (one woman who couldn’t make it sent in her $100 anyway) and the venue: The Villa Diner, convenient for all of them. In a moment of doubt, Jeannie recalls, “I said, ‘What if we get a really grouchy server?’ and then I answered my own question: ‘That person needs this even more.’”

The $900 tip that a group of local women left for their server at The Villa Diner last December.

The group, many of whom didn’t know each other, were almost giddy with excitement when they sat down. “The server was just happy we told her it was only one tab,” Sandi laughs. When the $72 check came, Jeannie was nonplussed to see that she was expected to take it to the register herself. Instead, she asked their server to take the tab up for them (with nine $100 bills carefully tucked underneath), and said, “Keep the change.”

Getting ready to leave, they saw their server finish up with other tables and then check their tab. Stunned, the server caught them at the door, thinking there had been some big mistake. “She said, ‘Is this for real? This is going to change my Christmas,’” Jeannie recalls. “As we were leaving, I looked back and she was standing in front of the coffeemaker, just weeping.” Outside, the group (many of them teary-eyed themselves) vowed to make this an annual event.

Sandi and Jeannie both say that the few people they have told this story to have all been inspired to do their own acts of kindness. “It’s almost like we need permission,” says Sandi, “but these little contributions add up to something much greater.” Jeannie adds the most heartening part of the whole story:  A few days later, someone she knows at The Villa told her that their server had shared her Christmas gift with others on the staff.

Empowering donors

Usually, parishioners give money to their church so it can do good work, but one Sunday last November, pastor Tony Schiavone of Cornerstone Community Church took a different tack. “We wanted to find a creative way to empower people not only to give, but to connect with the community,” he explains. “The need out there can seem overwhelming. So I thought, ‘Let’s flip the script.’”

Pastor Tony Schiavone of Cornerstone Community Church gave congregants $50 each to help people in need.

His challenge: Each individual or family, including visitors who weren’t even members of the church, was given an envelope with a $50 bill in it, with the charge to give that money to someone in need. There were no rules or restrictions, just encouragement to “do for one what you wish you could do for everyone.”

Schiavone admits when he first discussed the idea with the congregation’s leadership, some raised concerns that people might keep the money–and they decided if the person needed the cash that much, so be it. The total cost was more than $7,200, drawn from the church’s fund.

The congregation’s response has been overwhelmingly positive, with suggestions it should be an annual occurrence. One woman donated her $50 on Giving Tuesday, to a special education teacher raising money to buy school uniforms and supplies for her autistic students; another parishioner gave her envelope, with an additional $50 inserted, to a recently widowed co-worker struggling to make ends meet. Schiavone got an email from a stranger, a woman who had been in line at Kroger with her fussy toddlers when two teens from Cornerstone came up and handed her their $50 bills. Her husband is currently out of work, she wrote, and “sometimes we don’t know how we will pay all our bills.” Schiavone’s family still has their envelope taped up on the refrigerator. “We want to make a family decision on how to use it,” the pastor says, “and the need can be greater after the Christmas season.”

The den mother

Nancy Kechner, who works in research data services at UVA Library, is a small powerhouse with a doctorate in physiology–and both qualities come in handy in her other role, as the volunteer coach of the UVA women’s rugby team. Since women’s rugby is a club, not a UVA varsity sport, the team only exists because Kechner, her volunteer assistant coaches, and the student players raise money for equipment and travel expenses (with a small contribution from UVA’s student council). When Kechner, who learned to play rugby as a UVA undergrad in the 1980s, took over as coach in 1997, there were seven women’s college rugby teams in their division–and UVA ranked seventh. At the end of her first season, the team ranked third; by 2016, they made it to the national championships. Kechner was named USA Rugby’s female college coach of the year in 2018.

More than the accolades, though, the team is a surrogate family for the students. “Every Friday night we have a home game, I cook dinner for the team–lots of vegetables,” says Kechner (who also works part-time at Harvest Moon Catering, when she’s not visiting hospitals with her Swiss Mountain therapy dog). Players come by her house to hang out and play with her dogs, and if they can’t afford to go home over semester break (“many of our players are Access UVA [a form of financial aid],” she notes), they can stay with Kechner. One Thanksgiving, when a player was stranded in Charlottesville by a heavy snow storm, the coach drove her to Washington, D.C., to catch a train home.

“I love the game,” Kechner says, “and I love these kids. They are fun, and smart–smart kids make great rugby players.” Former players stay in touch, come to games, make donations, help raise money. “They live all over the world now, but they still get together,” says Kechner. “I get more from them than they do from me.”

Outside of her full-time work in foster care, Charlsie Stratton volunteers as a doula, offering support to new moms.

Ally and advocate

Charlsie Stratton credits her parents for giving her a dedication to helping others: “They are very involved in human services and the community, so I blame them–every single day.” Stratton works full-time for the city’s Community Attention Foster Families program, but her “other job” is volunteering as a doula: a trained, non-medical person who supports the mother and family through pregnancy and labor.

Stratton’s interest began when she was present for the birth of her sister’s first child. “I thought, ‘This is a miracle, seeing a whole little person come into this world. There has to be a job like this.’” She started researching, and found a local organization that was training women of color to help women of color, without charge.

Stratton is drawn to hands-on helping, getting to interact with people, which fits with being a doula. “We’re there to support the mom–medically, emotionally, spiritually. We’re her ally and her advocate,” she says. This service and support, Stratton says, is especially critical for women of color, who face an appallingly high–and disproportionate—rate of maternal mortality. She and other minority doulas are forming a new group, Birth Sisters of Charlottesville, to meet the need. While some of her clients may be first-time mothers, others are experienced moms who want or need additional support, and many of them are facing other issues as well, from housing insecurity to medical problems.

Stratton may be helping several women at once, but she tries to makes sure she’s only handling one due date a month. “I was trained, but wasn’t prepared for the emotional demands,” she admits. “There are a lot of family dynamics involved, and labor doesn’t always go as planned.” But Stratton, who credits both her partner and her day-job colleagues for being “amazingly supportive,” is exactly the kind of grounded, empathetic-without-drama person you’d want in your corner. “You have to have a strong spirit,” she says. “When mama’s tired, you can’t be tired; when dad passes out, you have to hold up. But every time, it’s worth it.”

General manager Jason Phipps and service manager Ashley Bugbee, of Burtons Grill, helped train employees in how to make a comfortable space for customers with dementia and their families. Photo: John Robinson

Serving with care

When Stonefield management asked Jason Phipps, general manager at Burtons Grill, if he would be interested in training for his staff on how to work with patrons with dementia, Phipps jumped at the opportunity—not to boost business, but because he understood the need. “My uncle was diagnosed with dementia a few years ago,” he says, so he was aware of the challenges for both those with the disease and those who care for them. Phipps and front-of-house service manager Ashley Bugbee—who grew up with a relative who had dementia/borderline Alzheimer’s—invited George Worthington from the Dementia Friendly Central Virginia initiative to come teach the staff. They were coached on the signs and symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, communication tips (e.g., speak directly and slowly to the person, and leave them time for response), and environmental adaptations.

Bugbee, who also trains servers, has spread the information so that most of Burtons front desk, server, and bar staff are prepared. Sometimes, patrons making a reservation will indicate someone in the party has dementia or cognitive issues, and ask for a trained server. Other times, it’s the staff who recognize and adapt: Will this person need more time in ordering? A table in a less busy section? Should we assign a server who is handling fewer tables, so the party doesn’t feel rushed? Bugbee says the servers feel the training has helped them be more patient and more understanding of patrons who show signs of cognitive impairment—and that can be a big assist for the family or friends handling the difficult role of caregiver. “We had one lady who brought in her elderly mother [with dementia] who didn’t get out much,” Bugbee recalls. “It was her mom’s birthday, and the server heard that, so she took a little extra time, wrote a little note on the check, and comped their dessert. The customer spoke to me afterward—she was really touched.”

Mack McLellan wanted to get kids of color excited about reading, by connecting them with books featuring characters who look like them. (The ice cream and bouncy houses don’t hurt, either.) Photo: John Robinson

The reading ambassador

“I hated reading as a kid,” says Welford Lee “Mack” McLellan, Jr. “There were never any characters who looked like me–or if they were black, they were poor kids, or slaves.” In 2017, McLellan was working with the Boys & Girls Club when a college professor shared with him statistics showing that, as children of color go through the school system, they are increasingly left behind on reading proficiency—and, eventually, higher education. That’s when McLellan, who has a master’s in social work, decided to hold a reading event for children and give away books. “I wanted these children to see people like them, and make reading fun,” he says.

McLellan began researching books about children of color by authors of color and, for the fun part, a friend helped him arrange for free ice cream and a moon bounce. In July 2018, McLellan and friends held their first Bridging the Gap event. “We called it that,” he says, “because we need to bridge not just the achievement gap, but the gap between parents and schools.” His goal was to hold an event in a different neighborhood each month. At Friendship Court, so many Afghani children came out that McLellan realized he needed to find books not only about black and Hispanic children, but about Muslim and Asian children…and about girls. He started a GoFundMe page, which raised more than $700, and then posted a wish list on Amazon so people could donate books.

Through Bridging the Gap, McLellan has seen parents reading to their children, in their own language; a young Muslim girl beaming because she now has a book about a girl who shares her name; a Japanese girl astonished at not one, not two, but three books about Japanese girls—and fourth- and fifth-graders embarrassed because they can’t read a picture book. “Our only rule,” says McLellan, who is now a teacher a Woodbrook Elementary, “is, you have to read a couple pages—for yourself, or to a younger child—before you get your ice cream.” So far, no children have objected.

Hands-on help

Lexi Hutchins is certainly busy enough: She’s an entrepreneur, founder/owner/creative director of Greenthumb Design, and a visual artist. But she also feels called to serve the community, so in February 2018, Hutchins and a group of friends formed Catalyst, named for the word that means “something that creates reaction and change.” The core of Catalyst is young people, but “we draw members from all walks of life,” Hutchins says. The group is informal, social, and dedicated to a practical, hands-on, one-on-one vision of service.

Catalyst’s Lexi Hutchins says the group, “a little tribe that loves to be together and serve the city,” takes on several projects (like helping someone move, above) one Saturday every month. Photo: John Robinson

“We clean houses, help people move, whatever the person needs,” Hutchins explains. “One man and his family needed a water drain dug while he was recovering from surgery, so five young men came and dug the trench. Some of them had never done that kind of work before, but they had a great time working together for the family.” In the early days, as Catalyst was figuring out its approach, Hutchins took several people over to her neighbor’s and offered to clean his house. He said no thanks, but he wanted to join the group.

Hutchins, co-leaders Sarah Borchelt (a palliative care nurse) and Kelly Chambers (in student services at UVA), and many others bring potential projects to the group by referral, word of mouth, or personal connections in churches, social service agencies, and advocacy groups. One example: A PACEM client had found a place to live, but couldn’t move in until she had a bed. Hutchins found a bed on craigslist, a Catalyst member had a truck, and they delivered the bed in time for the woman to settle in at her new home.

Catalyst now has a stable of about 60 volunteers—people show up when they can—who take on from five to seven projects one Saturday a month. Every project team has a leader and up to four other members. “The teams go out and get the job done, and then we all get together to have lunch afterwards,” Hutchins says. “We’re just a little tribe that loves to be together and serve the city.”

Thanks to everyone who provided examples of those doing good work around our community, with a special nod to Charlie Bourne of B&W Auto Body, whose tale of selling his prized vintage Harleys to fund his community service work sparked this article.

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Helga Hiss
Helga Hiss

This is wonderful, thank you for turning the spotlight on individuals who care and make a difference in our community. With all the negative issues we read about, what a treat to hear of people helping others. I’d love to read more stories about those who give up their time to read to children, build houses, or provide food, frienship and resources to their neighbors. It would be great to have a space to publicly thank them. The first individuals I’d want to thank are Darnell Lamont Walker, who gives free pool passes to children at Friendship Court and Doanne… Read more »