Brittany Thomas was walking to a store Christmas morning to buy mayonnaise so she could make sandwiches for herself and her daughter when a man in a van waved her over and told her that she could get a free meal at Maldini’s Ristorante Italiano on Forest Hill Avenue.
So Thomas went to pick up her 6-year-old daughter, Niya, and brought her to the neighborhood restaurant in South Side owned by Marcello Armetta, a Sicilian immigrant who decided six years ago that he would open his family’s business to serve the hungry and the homeless of his community on Christmas.
“I see a lot of people on the street, at lights, asking for money,” Armetta said.
The first time he decided to offer the free meal six years ago, he wanted to use the opportunity to set a good example for his oldest son, Antonino, who was 6 at the time.
“I wanted to make sure my son understood that Christmas is not just Santa and toys,” Armetta said. “It’s giving.”
Now, Antonino is 12, going on 13, and he helps with serving drinks to those who come in as his two younger siblings, Allessandro, 8, and Viviana, 4, play with their new Christmas toys nearby.
The night before, Armetta poured himself into preparing a full Italian meal, complete with pasta, bread, chicken and an entire pig. He started cooking the pig at midnight and had to wake up at 4 a.m. to turn it so that it would be just right in time for the Christmas lunch.
“He didn’t get much sleep last night,” said Bonnie Nunnally, who lives in the neighborhood and decided to volunteer to help serve the customers after her husband passed away in September. She wanted to spend the holiday helping others.
Other volunteers drove around the area, spreading the word and offering a ride to those who needed a free meal.
Arthur Johansen and Pauline Jones found out about the free meal through Craigslist.
“We don’t have a lot of money, so this is helpful,” Jones said.
This Christmas, people trickled in for the first hour or so. One man who had spent the night at a bus stop showered the Armettas with praise for their delicious generosity. Another man said he planned to come in again as a paying costumer when he gets some money.
For Thomas and Niya, Italian food isn’t their Christmas tradition, but they appreciated the full meal before they went to spend the rest of the day with family.
“I think it’s really nice,” Thomas said.
Antonino came over to the little girl with a present in a plastic takeaway bag.
“Merry Christmas,” he said shyly and walked away.
“Thank you,” Niya said with equal shyness.
As the day went on, more and more people crowded the restaurant.
Over the past six years, the number of people who’ve come to Maldini’s for a Christmas meal has ranged from 10 to 100, depending on the year, Armetta said.
This year, he made enough food to feed 200 people, just in case.
By 4 p.m., they had served an estimated 85 people, and they were still coming.
Although Armetta had advertised the open house from noon to 4 p.m., the family decided to keep the doors open a little longer to make sure everyone got a chance to eat.
“Nobody is going to leave hungry,” Armetta said.
Clover, a fox-red Labrador retriever, is only 17 months old, but she already can detect hundreds of chemicals found in substances that can be used to ignite fires.
That would be fires that are set illegally, as in arson.
“I think she’s smarter than me,” said Chesterfield County Assistant Fire Marshal C.F. Shedd, who has been paired with Clover for use by a national response team of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which assists local investigators with significant arson and explosive incidents.
Clover and Shedd are one of the newest ATF arson detection teams to be activated across the country, and they now are available to assist with major fire investigations throughout central Virginia.
“She will be used pretty extensively within the Richmond metro area,” Shedd said.
Clover and Shedd will be the 61st ATF canine team nationally; the next-closest teams are in Loudoun County and Chesapeake.
Clover was trained as a pup — at about 7 weeks old — to help fire investigators sniff out the causes of fires. Her olfactory abilities are so keen that she is able to detect a vast number of basic substances that are used to start fires — ending the guesswork and saving valuable time for investigators.
“She’s trained on specific parts of chemicals,” Shedd explained. “Her training is not really [to identify] gasoline specifically, for example, but more on the components of a chemical. That way, her ability to alert is expanded.”
When she alerts on a chemical used in an accelerant, she promptly sits in that location as a signal for her handler — in this case, Shedd. She then is rewarded with a snack.
Investigators then obtain a sample and send it to a lab for testing. “We then basically get verification on her success in conjunction with working with the lab,” Shedd said.
Together, Clover and Shed attended a five-week training course ending Dec. 6 that helped them work as a team. Shedd learned how to read Clover’s body language and manage her movements.
Shedd noted that Clover has been designated as a deputy fire marshal with the rank of captain, with a corresponding shield around her neck. And although Shedd is the handler, Clover outranks him.
Clover exudes the exuberance and physical appeal that comes with youth.
“She’s considered to be a fox-red retriever,” Shedd said. “She’s beautiful. When the sun hits her, she is bright red.”
Although Shedd is her handler, Clover is owned by the ATF. She came from Puppies Behind Bars, a program that trains prison inmates to raise service dogs for wounded war veterans and first responders, as well as explosive-detection canines for law enforcement.
Puppies enter prison settings at 8 weeks old and live with their inmate puppy raisers until they mature into well-behaved dogs, according to the organization’s website.
Shedd said when he first acquired Clover, she was very work-motivated and really didn’t have much of a personality. But that quickly changed as she began interacting with firefighters and Shedd’s family.
“Now that she has been living with a family and has an entire office that is loving on her, she definitely is full of personality now,” Shedd said. “She is still learning people and that’s something I’m actively working on — to have her be more friendly in everyday encounters that we have with strangers. I can see the development in her liking people.”
Clover, who must maintain a trim weight of about 58 pounds, is considered a family pet and lives with Shedd and his wife. The couple already had a cat and a labradoodle, and Clover has fit right in.
“She absolutely loves other dogs,” Shedd said. “My cat is still trying to assert her dominance on her, but Clover does really well with the cat. Overall, she’s just a really friendly animal.”
Clover is the first ATF arson detection dog to join Chesterfield Fire & EMS in about a decade. The first, Hero, retired nine years ago.
The fire marshal offices in Richmond, Henrico County and Hanover County have alternated as hosts of the region’s ATF’s detection dog. After Hero retired, Hanover acquired Hap, who has also now retired, Shedd said.
It then fell to Henrico to host one of the dogs, but it didn’t have anyone available at the time to serve as a handler, Shedd said. So Chesterfield has again taken on the responsibility.
Although Clover will be deployed in important fire investigations across the region, she will also help in Chesterfield fire prevention programs, Shedd noted.
“People love animals, so that kind of allows people to focus their attention on the topic that’s being presented — whether it be a smoke alarm or general kitchen safety,” he said.
“And so even though her specialty is arson work, she’s going to be used as a tool to basically educate.”
Jordan Siebert had suffered from mental health challenges and drug addiction since she was a child. In February 2016, homeless, unemployed and at a low point, she asked for help on Facebook.
A friend allowed her to live in his house for a few months. She was enrolled in Medicaid after previously trying to kick her addiction, and was referred to Daily Planet Health Services in Richmond.
Nearly four years later, Siebert has made so many strides in her recovery that she works at Daily Planet as a peer recovery specialist, helping people who are in the same situations she was. She told her story in a video that was shown in October at a breakfast that was part of recognizing Daily Planet’s 50 years of service to the Richmond area.
Daily Planet provides a variety of services for the poor, homeless and people struggling with mental health problems. Its organizers pride themselves on the ability to adapt; currently, treating opioid addiction is one of the most significant missions.
“One of the reasons that it has been able to stay relevant for that period of time is its nimbleness and its ability to respond to community needs,” said Beth Merchent, Daily Planet’s CEO since May 2018.
Daily Planet helps people addicted to opioids, like heroin, through its medication-assisted treatment program. Siebert utilized that program and now helps others go through it.
Her addiction started by age 11 with alcohol. Cocaine and heroin were her drugs of choice throughout her life, and when she asked for help in 2016, she decided to be open to everyone she knew about how she was still using and couldn’t quit.
She saw a doctor and psychiatric provider, and a therapist at Daily Planet. By 2018, she had done so well with medically assisted treatment that she applied for a job at Daily Planet. And she was hired to help others at a place that always made her feel comfortable in her own treatment.
“I don’t know how I got so lucky,” she said.
She meets with people in group settings or one on one to talk to them and listen to them without casting judgment. She said she wants to illustrate to them what recovery can look like.
And even without addiction, that’s not easy, she said. She and her husband were evicted from their apartment in November. “I did not get some things in writing that I should have and we got evicted,” she said.
They each are staying with relatives and trying to get a new apartment. “The biggest thing is that I’m not using,” she said.
Daily Planet started in the 1960s as a program of Jewish Family Services offering counseling and mentoring to young people.
At its locations on West Grace Street and on Belt Boulevard in Richmond’s South Side, Daily Planet provides primary medical and dental care, mental health and substance abuse treatment and counseling, and short-term shelter care for homeless people who have recently been discharged from a hospital or community program, and help with the cost of medicines.
Daily Planet is funded by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, patient revenue through health insurance or Medicaid, and through grants from foundations and agreements with local health systems and other organizations. Daily Planet staff work at Henrico County government mental health facilities.
“What has been rewarding for us is many of our patients who are now eligible for Medicaid have lots of options. They don’t have to get services here,” Merchent said. “They can go to VCU, they can go to Bon Secours, they can go to private doctors, but they’ve chosen to stay with us because they have a relationship with their doctor or nurse practitioner and other staff members here.”
At the 50th anniversary breakfast, held at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, Daily Planet presented its Anne Lane Community Spirit Award to Jewish Family Services; the award recognizes the work of Daily Planet founder Anne Lane 50 years ago to transform lives.
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Richmond’s closely watched high school focused on computer science has a new leader.
Michael Bolling, the founding executive director of CodeRVA, a regional magnet school, is returning to a post at the Virginia Department of Education. Kume Goranson, a former Chesterfield County Public Schools administrator, took over Bolling’s role last Thursday.
“Seeing a vision become reality is pretty cool,” Bolling said. “Every educator dreams of ‘what if I could open up my own school.’ It was something I got offered the opportunity to do, so it was a dream come true.”
Now he hopes to scale the work he’s done at CodeRVA to a statewide level, taking the school administration experience he didn’t have before and applying it as one of the leaders of the state Education Department.
Bolling has overseen the growth of a school under the microscope of researchers and officials across the region, who came together in 2017 to open the school in the Michael & Son Services building near The Diamond. Its original 15,310-square-foot size has expanded to more than 40,000, and enrollment is up from 93 in the fall of 2017 to 258 now.
Fourteen area school systems — Charles City, Chesterfield, Colonial Heights, Cumberland, Dinwiddie, Hanover, Henrico, Hopewell, New Kent, Petersburg, Powhatan, Prince George, Richmond and Sussex — send students to the year-round school, where they get an education focused on computer science with a combination of online and face-to-face learning and project-based coursework. Funding for the school and its roughly $3 million budget comes from the school districts (tuition is $9,650 per student) and grants.
CodeRVA students, chosen through a weighted lottery that represents the demographics of the region, graduate with a high school diploma — some also get an associate’s degree — and are required to complete two internships in computer science-related fields. The first cohort of CodeRVA graduates is set to graduate in June.
“We’ve found what’s working here, and now it’s a perfect time for the next generation leader to come in and take it from good to great,” Bolling said. “I hope people look at this as a model of innovation in education.”
Students at the school are also seeing success. Last year, for example, every student who took the Algebra II state test passed it. Sixty-nine students this year are enrolled at Reynolds Community College for dual enrollment classes and 1 in 3 members of CodeRVA’s class of 2020 — its first graduating class — will graduate high school with an associate degree.
In 2017, CodeRVA became the first school in Virginia to receive the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant from the U.S. Department of Education, worth $6 million.
“We are very proud of how the school has evolved over the past few years with Michael’s direction and are excited for the next steps under Ms. Goranson’s leadership,” said Rebecca Hall, a CodeRVA math teacher since its opening.
Bolling will be the state Education Department’s assistant superintendent of learning and innovation, replacing Gena Keller, who announced her retirement from the agency in September.
The former high school math teacher at Atlee High School in Hanover and Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus was the Education Department’s math coordinator and director of the office of mathematics and governor’s schools before being hired to run CodeRVA in 2016.
“CodeRVA is certainly one of the most innovative schools in the state, and as we think about how we can create the optimal and most equitable education for every student, I think Michael Bolling is going to bring a great perspective for that work,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane.
Bolling starts in the state role Jan. 2 and will be paid $130,000 per year, state Education Department spokesman Charles Pyle said. The job with CodeRVA paid $115,987 per year.
He has been replaced by Goranson, who was most recently the director of middle school leadership in Chesterfield. She was an assistant principal at Matoaca Middle School, Robious Middle School, Cosby High School and Bailey Bridge Middle School before becoming the principal there for six years.
“I have this opportunity to take a school that is young in its school shelf life and be part of that shaping process, grow it and build on the successes,” she said.