In December, just before the holidays, I had the pleasure of participating in a “Bus Tour” hosted by (CIS) Communities in Schools Chesterfield. Even with the chilly weather and lingering snow, Chesterfield County and Richmond City nonprofits, parents and government officials were well represented. CIS’s Executive Director, Ashley Hall, and Program Manager, Wendy Lively, welcomed us into Meadowbrook High School with open arms and warm smiles.
Our relationship with CIS Chesterfield blossomed this year through the initiation of our first “in-school” Listening Project, thanks in particular to Jennifer Hilliard, CIS Site Manager at Meadowbrook High School. Jennifer reached out to our Executive Director, Wendy McCaig, to inquire about the potential of applying asset-based community development principles in the school system through her work. Piloting the “listening phase” of our Community Empowered Model has been a life-long dream of Wendy’s but the right players had not yet come to the table at the same time. A meeting with Jennifer solidified our appreciation for CIS’ model and the vision for a student-led listening project was born through a shared commitment to empowering young people, their families, and their communities as a whole.
Jennifer is an alumni of Meadowbrook herself and has already made a huge impact on the well-being of students during her short tenure there. Her efforts attracted the attention of Superintendent Dr. Mervin Daugherty who recently recognized Jennifer at an awards ceremony. We were pleased to have Jennifer enroll in our 6-week “Youth Power Shift” course in preparation for launching the student-led listening project at Meadowbrook. Meadowbrook is a unique site for this pilot project as it serves a high-poverty population and has experienced unprecedented changes in its demographics over the last year. The student body is now predominantly Spanish-speaking which adds a beautiful angle to the potential of this listening project to unite students with diverse backgrounds over shared interests, passions and dreams for their school and community.
From Meadowbrook, our bus driver, a Chesterfield County Public School parent herself, drove us to Falling Creek Middle School. CIS Site Coordinator, Kimberly Reynolds, let us in the front doors where the Principal, Vice Principal and Dean of students greeted us with handshakes and their own festive Christmas attire. CIS helped Falling Creek to gain fully accredited status in 2018 by curbing absenteeism and certain behaviors. Kimberly led us around the school which was decorated with the names of universities and colleges, ranging from in-state to out-of-state, public to ivy league. We “stood-in” during an AVID class session, a program aimed at teaching students important life skills and connecting them to professional mentors who didn’t always take the traditional path. The tour commenced at Bellwood Elementary School, which services much of Chesterfield County’s poverty corridor. Many of the homes that we passed on the bus-ride there are without heat and water, even during the winter months; a reality far from my personal experience as a child. Elizabeth Stowers, the CIS Site Coordinator at Bellwood, is a fountain of energy and amiability. She shared several stories with us, demonstrating the importance of conducting home visits and getting to know the student’s families. She stated that she would “retire as a CIS Coordinator” because she felt the value and impact of her work every day. She also emphasized the importance of partnerships and community support in giving kids the level playing ground that they deserve.
Despite a staggering 110% increase Chesterfield County’s poverty rate since the 2000 census, the schools that we visited are rich in love. CIS and Chesterfield County Public Schools are striving to embody what it means to truly be a community, to put in the extra mile with every students. Our hope in partnering with CIS at Meadowbrook is that, with Jennifer’s guidance, the students learn the basics of asset-based community development – how to “do what they can, with what they have”. The objective of the “Listening Project” is for the students to learn to combine their gifts, talents, and abilities in creative ways and that they garner a sense of efficacy through the process. We are grateful to CIS for their enthusiasm in catalyzing this project and look forward seeing what the students dream up!