Local nonprofits employ creative collaborations

Boys & Girls Club participants make their own individual pizzas topped with protein, vegetables and pineapple at PB&J Fund’s kitchen. Eze Amos Boys & Girls Club participants make their own individual pizzas topped with protein, vegetables and pineapple at PB&J Fund’s kitchen. Eze Amos

On a recent day, Cristine Nardi, executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, was working with four different nonprofits on a variety of challenges: a succession plan for an executive director; how to handle a potential sexual harassment issue within the organization; how to do a 360-degree evaluation for an executive leader; and coaching a coalition on how to have challenging conversations.

CNE began 10 years ago as a resource center for things such as tips on grant writing, skill building and financial strategy. And although it still offers those services, CNE, a nonprofit itself, has gone “outside its four walls and in the community, to partner with nonprofits and their community partners to figure out how to solve community problems using the tools that they have in their toolbox,” Nardi says.

If there’s one word that describes all nonprofits, it’s flexible. They must be flexible not only in terms of the community’s needs and wants, but also in terms of how they match their infrastructure with programming. As Nardi points out, for-profit businesses are funded by their customers—people buying a product, with the goal of returning profits to their shareholders. But in the nonprofit world there’s a difference between the customer and who’s funding the business.

“Nonprofits are one part of the community—they’re the part of the sector that’s front and center in solving community problems but they can’t do it alone,” Nardi says. “In order to solve those community challenges there has to be engagement of other sectors—public and private. Nonprofits have a lot of direct skills and expertise and employ them, but it’s important to understand community problems require community solutions.”

One example of that has been the Mental Health Coalition, which Erika Viccellio, now executive vice president at United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area, helped found in 2009 when she served as executive director of the Charlottesville Free Clinic. She organized a meeting of everyone in the mental health space to discuss how they could create a better system for adult mental health services. While there is still “tremendous unmet need” in our community, that coalition led to information sharing and concrete planning, and now integrated care is available at the free clinic, Region 10 and Sentara Healthcare. “I’m convinced it’s the way to go—coalition work,” Viccellio says. “Thinking about issues, problems that need to be solved outside of our own organizations and as a community.”

To that end, CNE is looking toward the next 10 years and how nonprofits can be prepared for the future. Nardi says they’re looking at what makes a community resilient, which means being aware of environmental changes. Locally this includes a change in demographics in the growing senior population, population growth overall, increased racial and ethnic diversity and an increased amount of food insecurity.

Bright Stars preschoolers in Debbie Shelor’s class at Greer Elementary play the pumpkin patch game before leaving for the day. Photo by Eze Amos
Bright Stars preschoolers in Debbie Shelor’s class at Greer Elementary play the pumpkin patch game before leaving for the day. Eze Amos

Early Education Task Force

It’s 2:20pm on a Wednesday and the Bright Star students at Greer Elementary School have just woken up from their nap. With sleepy looks on their faces, they walk to their cubbies and retrieve their jackets and cloth book bags (each adorned with an object that starts with the same letter as the child’s first name) in preparation to leave for the day. But before they are dismissed, there’s one activity left: the pumpkin patch game. Although called a game, the activity is a clear example of what teachers in the Bright Stars preschool program call active learning—when children learn best by doing, touching, feeling and acting.

As a youngster covers his eyes in the corner of the room, one of his peers swipes a paper pumpkin cutout from the middle of the circle and swiftly hides it behind her back. To find out who took the pumpkin, the student must walk up to a fellow student and ask, “Did you take the pumpkin from the pumpkin patch?” If she is the pumpkin-picker, she must reveal the gourd she grabbed. If not, the student has to respond, “It wasn’t me.”

In this case, the guesser marches up to his classmate seated to the right of teacher Debbie Shelor, and inquires about the missing pumpkin. The students start giggling–he guessed correctly on the first try.

Bright Stars, part of the Albemarle County Preschool Network that also includes Head Start, Early Childhood Special Education and Title I, is funded through a grant from the Virginia Preschool Initiative funneled through the Albemarle County Public Schools and the Department of Social Services. And its coordinator, Ann McAndrew, is a member of the Early Education Task Force, a collective of area organizations, businesses and government representatives that was established in July 2015.

“I know a lot of the players in the community who have interest in little kids better than I would have otherwise,” McAndrew says. “I think by having a community group, it grabs some attention to the issue that wouldn’t be there doing it on our own.”

The task force’s mission is that every at-risk child in the Charlottesville/Albemarle area has access to high-quality early education. Specifically, it focuses on 4-year-olds, because members wanted to start with a quantitative goal. The group believes that, over time, investments in education at a younger age will result in greater long-term outcomes such as a stronger workforce and local economy.

The task force was born out of an early education summit hosted by United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area and Charlottesville Tomorrow in April 2015. Although task force chairperson Erika Viccellio wasn’t yet working at United Way then, she attended the summit and said the energy around the issue was “palpable.” Mike Chinn, president of S&P Global and chairman of the Smart Beginnings Thomas Jefferson Area Leadership Council, initiated the community discussion on the importance of equal access to education for young children. Chinn said the Smart Beginnings Council realized that the progress they were making in the early education arena was slower than they would have liked, and decided they needed a group that could really learn and get deeply involved in the issues to produce better outcomes. The result was a diverse task force of 16 members, which includes nonprofits and organizations working in the early-education sphere, Albermarle and Charlottesville government representatives, philanthropists and entrepreneurs. In addition, a vision keepers group was formed, which meets quarterly to tackle the larger questions of priorities or funding issues. Members of that group include big names in local education: superintendents of both school districts, Pam Moran and Rosa Atkins, Albemarle County Executive Tom Foley and Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones, Bob Pianta, dean of UVA’s Curry School of Education, Frank Friedman, president of Piedmont Virginia Community College, Chinn and others.

“I think what’s evolved is our thinking about making progress,” Chinn says. “We really moved the conversation forward and we tried to define what we call ‘the gap.’ To understand some demographic work, do work around programs already in existence and really understand specifically what the gap is, in terms of numbers and dollars.”

The task force, which meets monthly, received funding to hire a consultant to create a fiscal map of all resources in the community at the time for babies to 5-year-olds. The results found that the gap between 4-year-olds eligible for high-quality pre-K programs and available space was 250 to 350 kids. The task force outlined four goals for its first year: expand existing pre-K services, leverage resources to meet ongoing costs of providing high-quality pre-K to 4-year-olds, increase public awareness of the importance of quality early education and increase the number of pre-K classrooms participating in Virginia Quality, a program that ensures state benchmarks are being met in schools.

One specific—and measurable—goal was to reduce the number of at-risk children needing placement by 25 percent. In fiscal year 2016 that goal was met, with 71 additional 4-year-olds placed in preschools (28 through Bright Stars, 23 in a mixed-delivery pilot project partnership with private preschools and 20 funded by a United Way scholarship). Another concrete outcome of the task force is the move toward creating a digital-based preschool application that’s the same for the city, county and Head Start, so that the application process for parents (especially for transient families who move throughout the school year) is convenient.

Viccellio says one of the biggest hurdles initially for the task force was that everyone was already operating with a full plate, so it was paramount that they developed clear, actionable goals and a vision.

“Everyone is talking about partnership and collaboration but there aren’t a lot of examples of multisector collaboration where they’re having demonstrable results like this,” Viccellio says. “Really, I think it’s what we, the collective we, the community, is interested in thinking about: How are we better together? This is an example where when you share not just ideas but resources then you can get to a much bigger picture—you get to a systems change rather than just a stronger organization or entity.”

The task force is currently in year one of a two-year $250,000 grant from General Assembly monies earmarked for early education, and it has also received a grant from the state for innovative partnerships, as it looks at models that can work in other communities.

Currently, 90 percent of eligible 4-year-olds in the city are in quality preschools, with about 70 percent of children in Albemarle County. Viccellio says the task force is confident it can get the county’s number up to 90 percent in the next couple of years. And after all 4-year-olds have been served, the group will likely explore funding options and solutions for 3-year-olds. One hurdle is funding–Virginia Preschool Initiative pays for about a third of the cost of placing 4-year-olds in preschool, but that funding doesn’t exist for 3-year-olds. Chinn says a long-term funding strategy must include “creative solutions.”

“The bottom line is in addition to all the money that’s saved in remediation down the line for kids that show up behind in school, giving the kids the best start at the beginning sets them up for success that leads to the opportunities that we want for a healthy economy down the road,” Viccellio says.

Area demographics

8,115 children age birth to 4 in Albemarle and Charlottesville

1,030 of those children (12.7 percent) live in poverty

22.4% of those children in Charlottesville live in poverty

9.5% of those children in Albemarle County live in poverty

17.4% of the children in the state in that age group live in poverty

$13,623,379 total funding for services and initiatives in Charlottesville and Albemarle County to promote early childhood development

Food Justice Network

Charlottesville is certainly a foodie town, with its Restaurant Weeks and festivals dedicated to all types of food, but several organizations are working toward a larger food goal: to create and build a healthy and just system for all of our residents. In September 2015, the Food Justice Network received a two-year grant with the goal of combatting some of the structural inequalities that exist in our community surrounding access to healthy food. What began as a meeting of the minds of 10 core groups has grown to include 20 members, made up of nonprofits in the food-access world, as well as businesses such as Whole Foods and a farm.

“For us, it started because there’s such a vibrancy of local food organizations doing similar but supportive work, and we found we were often competing for the same grants and working in the same communities, and we wanted to turn that into a positive,” says City Schoolyard Garden Executive Director Jeanette Abi-Nader. “At the same time, the local food movement in Charlottesville is so popular, there’s a lot of foodie culture that doesn’t really address some of the structural inequities.”

One of the first things the network did was collaborate with a doctorate class at UVA to assess what neighborhoods each organization was already serving, as well as what a snapshot of their participants looked like and in what ways the organizations were already collaborating. Many have been working together for years, such as the Local Food Hub, Bread and Roses at Trinity Episcopal Church, International Rescue Committee’s New Roots program, City Schoolyard Garden, Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville and more. The group is still in a fact-finding phase for its long-term goals, but it’s starting by focusing on smaller concrete projects.

Most residents are aware that the City Market sells artisanal food and wares and produce from local farmers, but they might not realize that Market Central, a nonprofit, sponsors the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program at City Market, which allows SNAP recipients to use their dollars to purchase fresh food. And through private funding and a partnership with the IRC, Market Central offers up to $20 in matching SNAP funding, as an extra incentive for in-need residents to shop at the farmers market. Cecile Gorham, chairwoman of Market Central’s board, says she sees SNAP recipients buying free-range eggs and free-range beef, something they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

“When people can afford better food you’re actually investing in their health and saving money in a different direction,” she says.

Network members say the meetings (held about every other month) have been beneficial because they learn what other organizations are doing in the food-access world and what other resources are available to their clients.

“We conduct focus groups with patients (in the Food Farmacy program) and record comments anonymously, which is vital information for us to have,” says Laura Brown, director of communications and marketing for the Local Food Hub. “Last year a lot of people said, ‘I always assumed the market was too expensive but this (learning about SNAP funding) encouraged me to go check it out and there are a lot of things in my budget.’”

One goal of the group is to strengthen its voice in the community. Last year the group worked with the organizers of the Tom Tom Founders Festival to hold a panel in April titled “Making Local Food First for All.” And, a few weeks ago, representatives from the network attended a local food stakeholders meeting to plan for next year’s Tom Tom festival, and they were able to come to the table as a group with community-wide ideas on how to make events accessible to everyone.

“We have elements of food systems, sharing food and cultural sharing, so the network lets us be confident that we’re not being too focused on just our own organizations, goals and purposes but instead really looking at how can we work at as wide a community level as possible,” says Lisa Reeder, food and farm access coordinator of the Local Food Hub. She says through the Local Food Hub’s Fresh Farmacy, an obesity-prevention program that delivers local produce to free clinics, they learned barriers to food access in our community include economic, physical proximity to stores, cultural appropriateness for refugee families, language barriers and a lack of cooking skills.

Another barrier to food access is familiarity. Maria Niechwiadowicz, program coordinator with Bread and Roses at Trinity Episcopal Church, says because at-risk families are working with constrained budgets, they are not likely to purchase unfamiliar foods, for fear that if their family doesn’t eat them it’s money wasted. One program seeking to combat that is the PB&J Fund, which hosts cooking classes for children and teen mothers at its downtown facility. PB&J partners with Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia and Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Central Blue Ridge to teach kids cooking skills, nutritional information and also introduce them to new foods.

What started in 2009 with one class of eight kids has morphed into nine weekly classes serving about 90 children.

“We really feel once they start cooking with the food then they’re much more open to trying it,” says Courtenay Evans, chef and culinary educator. “It’s to gain a skill set as well, to be able to cook at home and also have resources and knowledge to know how to cook healthfully. Our hope is that it will allow for choices for the children as they grow up.”

Whole Foods is a newer member of the network, having joined in the last four to six months, but Kristen Rabourdin, field marketing team leader with Whole Foods, says joining the network is in line with the company’s goal of being mission-driven.

“I think people as a whole would be surprised to hear about so many individuals who fall through the cracks—people who truly rely on the services like the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank and an emergency food source as their main food source,” she says. “The need is growing and not going away. If all of us can start putting it on our radar, then we can help fulfill the need in our community.”

The conversation around food access is all encompassing, network members say, including supporting farmers who grow local food to giving power in terms of food choices back to disenfranchised people.

“I do think a hot topic this year and in the next couple of years in local food is going to be food justice, food access and food equality,” says Reeder. “We’re hoping to elevate this discussion so it’s not just our group talking about it but it’s a part of Charlottesville.”

Food Justice Network snapshot

Leadership team includes: City Schoolyard Garden, City of Promise, the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville, International Rescue Committee: New Roots, Local Food Hub and Trinity Episcopal Church—Bread and Roses

Other organizations involved: Cville Foodscapes, Institute for Environmental Negotiation, PB&J Fund, Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry, New Branch Farm, Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, Casa Alma, Charlottesville City Schools, Emergency Food Network, Piedmont Virginia Community College, Growing for CHANGE, the Virginia Cooperative Extension, Whole Foods and Market Central

Justice for all:

18 neighborhoods in Charlottesville

8 organizations are working with nine or more of the neighborhoods

10th and Page is the most-served neighborhood

Strategies most commonly used:


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