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Down by the river, Trinity Episcopal and Obama Elementary students come together

The holding of hands between students from Trinity Episcopal School and Barack Obama Elementary was abruptly interrupted.

As they stood hand-in-hand on Belle Isle on a warm fall Friday, two bald eagles flew overhead, resulting in pointing, a high-five and the realization of a dream from teachers at a private school and a public school where 2 in 3 students live in poverty.

“I’ve never seen those before,” a fourth-grader at Barack Obama said aloud.

That’s exactly the point.

The two schools — Trinity, on the city’s South Side, and Obama, on the North Side — are in the second year of a partnership where Trinity students taking a high school river science class go on field trips with Obama students, many of whom, organizers said, might not get the experience otherwise. The partnership aims to have the students explore nature in the city together while giving the older students mentorship experience equivalent to being a camp counselor.

For the most part, that involves just playing outside together — taking the last Friday of every month and getting out of the four walls of their classroom and into the outdoors.

“The more you’re out to experience things, the more you’re going to experience,” said Ned Trice, a science teacher at Trinity. “To have these positive, memorable moments where you’re in touch with nature is what we’re trying to provide.”

The two schools came together when Clair Carpenter, who graduated from Trinity in 2005, approached her alma mater’s head of school wanting to give her students at Obama, where she now teaches fourth-grade, a similar experience of constant interaction with the James River like she had at Trinity.

“Just being able to share my experience that I had with Trinity and the river program with these kids has been so wonderful,” she said.

In the first year of the partnership, the cohort went on four field trips together. This year, there are eight planned.

“It’s an opportunity to get time outside — for my kids to get time caring about what they’re learning and the Obama kids to get time to learn about what they’re seeing,” Trice said.

On the group’s first field trip in September, students picked up trash around the 54-acre Belle Isle, hiked the trails around the island, jumped on rocks and tested water samples.

The two schools were trying to see whether there’s a difference in water quality between urban and rural areas.

A small group of students is overseen by a Trinity student who leads them in each activity. For the rock-hopping, for example, students simply jumped from rock to rock together while a Trinity student followed suit.

Willow Haddock, a student at Obama, said she had been to Belle Isle before — she even kept a beetle she found and kept it alive for four months — but especially enjoys it during the school day.

“I can’t believe we got to go to Belle Isle. I’m so happy,” she said as her group made the transition from rock-hopping to cleaning up trash on the island.

In October, the students went to Deep Bottom Park in Henrico County.

Other trips are planned for Forest Hill Park and Brown’s Island, among other places, with Trinity paying for the transportation to get students to the trips.

With the friendships they form near the river, each set of students hosts the other at their respective school, including a Christmas party at Obama.

“I want them to be in touch with the environment so they can love the environment so they can take care of it,” said Trice, the Trinity teacher. “The more they understand the local environment the better.

“There’s the concept that nobody protects something because they saw it when it was blighted — they protected it because they loved it as a child and then they see it being degraded and they want to reverse that.”

PHOTOS: 4th graders learn about water quality on Belle Isle

Henrico Court Appointed Special Advocates continue mission under new leadership, growing caseload

After living overseas for several years, Barbara Herzog was seeking volunteer opportunities when she saw a magazine ad for a new Henrico County agency serving abused and neglected children in the justice system.

It was 1995 and Henrico had recently created a program modeled after a Seattle-based organization to give the county’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court judges the option to appoint trained volunteers to support children of families cycling through their courtrooms.

Herzog retired as executive director of Henrico Court Appointed Special Advocates this fall after nearly 25 years on the front lines, including 11 as its leader. She played a key role in growing one of Virginia’s nearly 30 CASA programs, safeguarding the interests of vulnerable kids who come into contact with the justice system under circumstances beyond their control.

Jeannine Panzera, a lawyer who began working with CASA as a volunteer coordinator about 10 years ago, is now prepared to take the reins, with the benefit of her legal training and hands-on experience.

“I am honored to have the opportunity to lead Henrico CASA and look forward to bringing enthusiasm, fresh perspective and experience to the dedicated team of board members, caring staff and zealous advocates,” Panzera said. “I believe that the organization is poised to build on the tremendous momentum of the past 25 years.”

As additional pairs of eyes and ears for the court, CASA volunteers assist overburdened social workers and lawyers assigned to act as a guardian for children in juvenile and domestic relations court cases by regularly visiting the kids in their homes.

The volunteers also spend time speaking with parents, teachers and caregivers and going over school and health reports to create independent recommendations for how judges should determine child custody or other matters in difficult cases involving families.

“That’s the great thing about CASA; we don’t get paid. We’re not punching the clock or expecting a check. We’re just there to say, ‘What can we do here to make sure this child is heard and represented?’” said Susan Tellier, a CASA volunteer for the past 21 years.

Originally conceived by a Seattle juvenile court judge in 1976, the CASA model has spread and now has about 950 programs with 93,300 volunteers around the country who serve about 271,800 children annually, according to the national organization.

The local organization reported about $440,000 in expenses last year, about 80% of which went to program services. More than half of the $600,000 it drew in revenue came from state, federal and local grants, with the rest of the funding coming from donations and fundraising events.

Harvey Gutkin, another CASA volunteer, said he has worked on about 25 cases involving 45 children in the 12 years he’s been volunteering. After retiring from sales, a television news report on CASA and the birth of his first grandchild compelled him to consider volunteering, he said.

“There’s no money value you can put on the feeling you get,” the 70-year-old said about volunteering with CASA. “And because I’m a little bit older, it keeps me mentally sharp. You’re meeting with people, writing these reports, meeting with attorneys, social services and schools. So I think it’s good for me just to have a purpose.”

As Henrico’s population has grown from 240,000 in 1995 to about 330,000 in 2018, the county’s poverty rate has nearly doubled, from 5.5% in 1990 to just under 10% in 2018, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Panzera and Herzog said the stress that comes with poverty can sometimes result in issues at home that draw the attention of social services or the legal system.

“There’s been a lot of growth wrapping around Richmond, so some of the poverty that was there has started to push out into the suburbs,” Panzera said.

Herzog said she has seen the organization’s slate of cases grow from about 100 to 400 annually since the mid-1990s, reflecting a growing need to help abused and neglected children.

She said the number of cases also demonstrates trust the court system has placed in the organization and its volunteers who dedicate hundreds of hours each month to work with children suffering from trauma and facing an uncertain future due to dynamics beyond their control, such as mental illness and substance use disorder.

Tellier, 47, works full time in the public health arena. She said she believes the rise of the opioid epidemic in the Richmond metro area has also had an impact, especially as the county has been dealing with overcrowding in its two jails.

“A lot of those people they’re arresting have kids. So when you see these people get locked up, you gotta wonder, ‘Well, what happened to their kids?’ ” Tellier said.

Though CASA volunteers are not professional social workers or lawyers, their status as volunteer advocates often makes children and their families more open, said John Mizell, an attorney regularly appointed by Henrico family judges over the past 20 years to be a guardian ad litem for children in abuse and neglect cases.

“It’s a trained volunteer that’s looking after their best interest. So they tend to be more forthright, less guarded than they would be with guardian ad litem lawyer,” Mizell said. “Sometimes, the CASA will get more information or it will be more readily shared.”

Panzera said all CASA volunteers begin with 40 hours of training to ensure cultural competency, familiarity with the child welfare system and an understanding of how trauma affects children and families.

Volunteers are usually assigned to just one or two cases so that they can volunteer about 15 hours per month.

Panzera and Herzog said the nonprofit does not have a waiting list for its assigned cases, but there’s always a need for more volunteers to replenish their ranks. Volunteers usually serve for about three years on average.

All volunteers are expected to remain involved with CASA for at least one year so that they remain involved in cases from start to finish and so that they can build relationships with officials in social services and the local justice system.

“From Ph.D. to GED, anyone can be a CASA volunteer,” said Panzera, repeating an oft-used phrase by the organization’s staff and volunteers.

Herzog said the work CASA does alters the lives of the children it serves for the better.

“No one goes from disaster to a white picket fence, but they can go from disaster to healing and safety,” she said. “Anyone can enhance their lives by volunteering. It’s a major commitment that becomes part of your life, but it’s definitely worthwhile.”

Information sessions for anyone interested in volunteering will be held at the Henrico CASA offices at 3001 Hungary Spring Road, Suite A at 6 p.m. Dec. 5 and at noon Dec. 11.

To sign up for the event, contact Rebecca Kalman-Winston at (804) 501-1670 or kal001@henrico.us. For details, visit HenricoCASA.org.

Henrico Sheriff-elect Alisa Gregory brings hope and compassion into jails

Walking through Henrico County’s Jail West, Alisa Gregory stops to talk, and listen, to dozens of deputies and inmates alike.

“I can walk through the jail and not come out for hours,” Gregory said in an interview in her office earlier this month.

Even before she officially takes over as sheriff, they know she’s the one to get their questions answered, their issues handled or their voices heard.

“She’s always been a good go-to person for getting stuff done,” said outgoing Sheriff Mike Wade.

It’s been a few weeks since Gregory, 50, won the election to succeed Wade, making her the county’s first female and African American sheriff. Wade officially retires Dec. 31 but is taking the entire month of December off, so Gregory took the reins Wednesday. She won’t officially be sworn in until Dec. 11.

She said it’s her compassion and love of people that drove her to run for a role she never envisioned for herself. The constitutional position is charged with security at Henrico’s courts and at Jail West in Henrico and Jail East in New Kent County. The sheriff’s office also executes mental health commitment orders and serves civil process documents. The department Gregory is inheriting is one of the largest in the state with 403 total staff members, including 321 sworn deputies, and it has an annual budget of $42.5 million.

“It used to be that the most I could be here is chief deputy; then the sheriff created undersheriff,” Gregory said of the position she held until becoming the top brass. “But because the position is elected, it’s going to be a man or it’s going to be a police officer, because that’s what it had been in the past. But to now see that I can come here and the sky is the limit.”

The fact that she was a woman never really crossed Wade’s mind when he was looking for his successor, he said.

“I just thought she was a deputy, I didn’t realize she was a female,” he said. “To think that a female couldn’t come to the top would be ridiculous today. I think it’s about caring for the inmates and the employees, and she’s certainly shown that.”

But she’s no pushover either, Wade said, remembering when she was upset with him when he assigned her to an overnight security post. But she said she’s glad now because it means she’s worked in nearly every department in the office.

Wade first encouraged Gregory to run for the Republican nomination. Wade won as the GOP candidate in each of the five elections starting when he was first elected in 1999, and formerly chaired the county’s Republican Party. But when Gregory instead turned to the Democratic Party, which she said better matched her own ideals, Wade resigned from his party to support her.

“That’s how strongly I believed that we needed someone like her,” Wade said.

The Highland Springs High School graduate still lives in the Varina District of Henrico with her husband. She raised three children there and tried to instill in them the same principles of compassion that her grandmother did in her.

“My grandmother had the house where everybody could come,” she said. “Whether it was family or friends that came, they knew that if they were on hard times or if they had done something, that you could come to my grandmother and not only was she going to love you, give you her best, take care of you, she was not going to judge you.

“Because everybody makes mistakes,” she continued. “We all make mistakes.”

Gregory said she didn’t realize it until now, but her grandmother’s house served as her first example of what a recovery house could be and what it could do for people.

One of the most pressing issues at the two county-run jails is overcrowding. Inmates with substance-use and mental health issues are largely contributing to this, she said, and so she’s looking for ways to “triage” them. That means quickly identifying those people who could benefit from programs or alternative sentences that might mitigate the issues that brought them into the jail.

“We want to work on the person; reduce recidivism; we want to stop the cycle for some of them, the revolving door for some of the folks,” she said. “People need to know that someone has faith in them. They have to know that there is still hope. And that’s what we should be doing. That’s what people should be getting when they come into jail. You’ve hit that place, now how do you turn it around and get back on track?”

Gregory said the nationally recognized drug rehabilitation programs Wade started, RISE and ORBIT, “are here to stay.”

“I think the sheriff was a pioneer before his time,” she said of Wade, whom she has worked under throughout her 21-year tenure except for one year. “I think he has set a new precedent for what our correctional institutions should look like: true rehabilitation. Being able to address the issues that sometimes bring people into correctional institutions or jails. I think we can only enhance and get better with those programs.”

She also wants to thank those who supported her rise, and her way of doing things. She acknowledges that the system is already built around punishment, but said it could also go a long way in helping people leave jail better than they came in.

“If that’s soft, then a lot of people in the community want a soft sheriff,” she said of her platform of compassion. “I think it’s a caring sheriff.”

While campaigning she met a young woman who had been incarcerated when Gregory had just started working at the sheriff’s department. The woman now is a business owner.

“To have her tell you that you were a part of that, because you believed in them, that’s huge,” she said. “To know that you are a positive impact on somebody’s life and they can turn it around and they can be a productive part of the community. That’s why I do it.”

Wade said he believes Gregory is “set up to succeed.”

“If she does great, it’s what I taught her; if she doesn’t do well, she didn’t listen to me,” he joked.

Memory, fellowship and community-building take root at The Giving Heart's Thanksgiving feast

It was Tiffany Bailey’s first Thanksgiving without her son Terrell, who was born just a few days after the holiday 24 years ago.

Bailey said she and her family chose to volunteer with other members from Village of Faith church this Thanksgiving as a faith-informed act of service and to honor the memory of her son, who died in June.

“We always called him our Thanksgiving baby,” Bailey said while helping out Thursday at the Giving Heart Community Thanksgiving Feast at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

“That was a life-changing experience for us,” said Bailey, whose mother also died this year. “Terrell was kindhearted. He was very giving. His birthday was Tuesday. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the day, but I prayed and asked God for strength — that’s what we’ve been doing.”

“If I would have asked him to do this today, he definitely would have done it because that’s the kind of person he was,” she added.

As part of the 14th annual feast hosted by The Giving Heart nonprofit, volunteers serve Thanksgiving meals and dine with a few thousand guests each year.

The turkeys and other Thanksgiving fare, as well as toiletries, clothing and other items people can pick up at the event, are donated through various charities, organizations and individuals.

“It’s an open invitation to everybody. It doesn’t matter who you are,” said Vicki Neilson, executive director of The Giving Heart. “We come together for food and fellowship at the table.”

About midway through Thursday’s event, Neilson said organizers had counted about 2,000 guests.

Tim Pulley, who is recovering from alcoholism and living at the Healing Place shelter, was in line to get a haircut toward the end of Thursday’s event, but he gave up his spot after seeing a young child waiting in line behind him.

“I’d rather have the kids go in front of me even if I was first in line, because they’ve got to go back to school,” he said.

Pulley, who said he has been struggling with homelessness for the better part of three decades, said Thursday was his second time attending the annual Thanksgiving event.

He said it seems to draw many of the same people he sees on a regular basis, but that the feast provides an opportunity for everyone to interact with others in the community who they might otherwise never see.

“I really think it helps bring this city together,” he said. “It’s come a long way from when I was growing up.”

Bailey said she wanted to volunteer this Thanksgiving to set an example for her youngest daughter, who is 14.

“We celebrate Thanksgiving at home every year. Some people don’t have that opportunity. I told her you may sit with a student or someone that is homeless,” she said. “I wanted to show her that we have to get out into the community and help others.”

Kabir Sodhi said his family has been volunteering at the event for about 10 years.

He said he initially started volunteering as a youth ambassador at the event, taking food orders from various tables, but has graduated to table host, which allows him to dine with guests and help guide them to other services that are available that day.

“With our family, there’s always at least a couple of us that come,” he said. “It’s basically about just being with other members of your community in a place where we can serve each other and relax.”

Sodhi said he isn’t sure how his family first started volunteering for the event, but that it’s become a Thanksgiving tradition for them.

“Sometimes, you’ll see people you hosted at different tables before. So you start to become familiar with the guests,” said his cousin, Cheena Singh, explaining that the annual experience helps to build a sense of community for them.

“Richmond is our hometown,” Singh said.