Faith-based group out to change world for homeless students

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 4/22/2016, 5:21 a.m.
More than 1,600 students in Richmond Public Schools are considered homeless because they lack a traditional place to live. They …
Dr. Natalie May, left, holds an impromptu meeting with three Change the World RVA students. From left, they are Marshé Turner, Leo Reyes and Vincente Johnson. Location: Huguenot High School in South Side. Photo by Sandra Sellars

More than 1,600 students in Richmond Public Schools are considered homeless because they lack a traditional place to live.

They live in shelters with their families, bunk with relatives or on the couches of friends or find space in group homes or motels.

It’s an unstable life of constant moves — filled with worry about having a place to sleep and having enough to eat while struggling to keep up with homework. Disappointment and broken promises are all too common in their lives.

One lifeline for homeless teens trying to finish high school or go on to college is a small, faith-based organization of volunteers called Change the World RVA.

“We really try to provide meaningful support,” said Natalie May, founder and president of the group’s 13-member board.

The organization works with up to 20 young people, most in high school but some in college or building a career.

The Richmond-based CWRVA provides bus passes and cell phones to enable the students to get to school, jobs and services, said Dr. May, a Richmond resident and full-time researcher and writer on the impact of optimism and positive thinking on various fields, including medicine.

The group also makes sure the students have food and clothing. They also pair students with host families who provide students with a place to live if the young adults have no place to go, she said. On Mondays, there’s an after-school program where students get homework help and are taken on field trips.

Participants also receive help with college applications or finding jobs.

Such effort is now receiving state recognition. CWRVA this week was named the winner of the Governor’s 2016 Volunteerism and Community Service Award for a community organization.

The group was cited “as the only organization in Central Virginia specifically addressing the needs of high school and college students who face homelessness. Teams of caring adults provide help to these students with housing, school supplies, transportation, positive encouragement and more.

“These adults and young people have become a strong family unit, supporting one another, having fun together and planning their lives together. Students receive assistance beyond high school into their college careers — a time when they need stability and support even more.” 

The group got its start in December 2011, when Alia Butler Adlich, a Richmond Public Schools social worker, approached Bon Air United Methodist Church and Westover Hills United Methodist Church about providing gifts for homeless students and their families.

Still with RPS, Ms. Adlich serves on the CWRVA board and continues to work closely with the group. Through her role as a McKinney-Vento Act social worker, a special federal program that provides funds to aid homeless students, she refers students and also reaches out to CWRVA when students face emergency situations, Dr. May said.

Dr. May said the two churches later united to host a graduation party for homeless seniors from three city high schools, Armstrong, Huguenot and George Wythe.

Building on that success, she said she worked with others in the churches to organize a summer course to help eight of the students get ready for college.

Reaching out to a dozen other churches, Dr. May said volunteers came together to develop CWRVA to provide each participating student with a network of caring adults, help in obtaining stable housing and weekly after-school programs.

The group covers the expense of driver education, remembers the participants’ birthdays and “sticks with our students even after they turn 18 and graduate,” Dr. May said.

CWRVA now works with others in the field, such as Advocates for Richmond Youth, Art 180, Great Expectations, the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, Richard Bland College and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, to provide support and motivation.

The organization always seems to find the help it needs. For example, when CWRVA was looking for space for its after-school program, the group found it at Boulevard United Methodist Church in the city.

The organization operates on a shoestring budget of $50,000 to $60,000 a year, with small grants from participating churches and community groups, individual donations and by staging fundraisers, such as a sale of new and gently used purses and jewelry and the sale of cookies. On Sunday, April 24, the Virginia Benefit Chorale will sing at 7 p.m. at Bon Air United Methodist Church to benefit CWRVA.

To Dr. Day, “the program works because we are flexible and responsive to student needs as they arise. We care deeply for our students as individuals. They are never a case number or a file in a drawer.

“The key has been fostering relationships between the students and our volunteer adults,” she continued. “That’s what we teach our students — to constantly form relationships with people who will be positive and supportive.”