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Faith-inspired activist organizes prayer and gospel service for battered Canterbury community

Making sure her “I love Jesus” face mask and tiny tambourine with her name and phone number scrawled inside it were packed, Rosa Jiggetts set out Sunday afternoon like she has each week for the past month.

The nonstop news about the outbreak of COVID-19 at Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center isn’t keeping her or the dozens of local faith community leaders from coming to pray and sing for the beleaguered residents and nurses there.

“I want them to know that people in the community are thinking about them,” Jiggetts said. “The outside world ain’t forgot them.”

On Sunday, a pair of pastors and two members from Healing Hands Worship Center in Petersburg were coming up for the weekly service.

A minister from The Servant Messengers prayer ministry also visited and said a prayer during the service.

“We believe in prayer, healing and protection. So that’s what we’re going to do today,” said Towanda Walker, the church’s senior pastor. “We’re going to pray for God’s blessings on this place.”

Thinking of how demoralizing it must be for the residents and staff there, Jiggetts started organizing the visits last month as the death toll and reports of new infections came out almost every other day.

As of Friday, the facility in western Henrico County has publicly confirmed 132 cases of COVID-19 and 49 deaths among its residents.

A retired nurse and longtime community activist based in Richmond’s North Side, Jiggetts has spent decades helping neighbors facing eviction, past-due utility bills and isolation in their old age.

The charitable work she does — which is coordinated through various faith community leaders and nonprofit organizations such as Boaz & Ruth in the city’s Highland Park neighborhood — is informed by her faith.

Over the last month, Jiggetts has organized the visits to Canterbury with William Shaw, a deacon at Greater Brook Road Baptist Church who for the past 20 years has coordinated revival-style services outside of area health care centers with his public address system.

Jiggetts and Shaw say they are not afraid of visiting Canterbury. Both said they feel they are being called to support the residents and staff.

“She’s an angel. She really is,” said Patricia Gould-Champ, pastor of Faith Community Baptist Church in Henrico. “My heart met with hers. This is a facility that needs to be encouraged.”

The pastor visited Canterbury with Jiggetts last week. In addition to singing gospel songs, Gould-Champ delivered a sermon based on a reading from the book of Psalms.

“Loneliness can affect all of us right now. We all need to be encouraged and know that we’re never alone,” she said. “Someone is always watching, caring for us.”

Jeremiah Davis, Canterbury’s administrator, said the displays of support for the residents and staff are humbling.

“The Sunday church visits are incredibly uplifting — both spiritually and emotionally — for everyone here at Canterbury,” Davis said. “This is a stellar example of how local residents, groups, organizations and businesses are showing us what being part of a caring community is all about.”

Jiggetts and the various faith groups she’s worked with are not the only ones supporting the health care center.

In a news release last month, Davis thanked the various organizations and charities that donated meals, handmade masks, flowers and notes with words of encouragement.

Set to “Hero” by Mariah Carey, a slideshow posted to YouTube late last month shows Canterbury staff with colorful cards and small gifts that families, church groups, high school students, businesses and health care workers sent them over the past month.

“Their countless messages and gestures of kindness are making an enormous difference during this challenging time,” Davis said.

Jiggetts said she plans to continue visiting Canterbury with different church groups every Sunday through the rest of May.

If the virus persists and things remain difficult there afterward, she’s hoping others will join her cause.


Art
On Hull Street in Manchester, the 'Brown Girl Narratives' mural is an ode to black women

If the walls of Hull Street could talk, they’d speak of loss. As years passed, storefronts waned into graffitied windows and brick walls, neighboring industrial lofts that have branded Manchester as “up and coming.”

But sandwiched between Max Market convenience store and Croaker's Spot, the longstanding "soul of seafood," sits "Brown Girl Narratives," a 20-by-60-foot-tall mural infusing color onto the South Richmond stretch, another reminder that Hull Street is here to stay.

Seven black women of different shades, shapes, hair and sizes are embraced by a sky-blue hand weaving across and around them, linking the women together.

Within each woman’s body are quotes and phrases from the research that inspired this artwork: VCU doctoral student Kristal Brown’s dissertation that focuses on the role racism plays in the physical and mental health of young black women.

“I wouldn’t want to be anything other than black”

“Superwoman”

“Trendsetters”

“We are shaping our narratives”

In the months leading up to the mural, Brown facilitated conversations across Richmond, where she asked what it was like to be a black woman. The stories frequently overlapped.

Some remembered experiencing racism from the age of 4; white kids laughing at Black History Month movies at school; being told they “talk white” but have braids.

Others explored the complexities of being a police officer in a predominantly white male space or being bullied for their lips and body.

“It was something that I felt like we needed to talk about, particularly in Richmond, where the city is still very much divided,” Brown said. “There were many times I wanted to say, ‘Me too.’ ... It makes you know that it’s not just you.”

Brown and artist Austin Miles, a muralist whose work focuses on women of color and body image, wanted this mural to be a source of healing from these experiences, and for a neighborhood that has long experienced displacement and high eviction rates.

“When communities are becoming gentrified, the people who were there originally aren’t seen,” Miles said. “Women in this mural matter. The black people in that community matter. I hoped that that would be a motivator for togetherness.”

Especially now, in the era of 6-foot distancing, she added.

“There’s something powerful about them holding each other in a moment where we can’t.”

For decades, murals have coated Richmond’s walls and inner nooks hidden in alleyways, but black muralists are few and far between in this city, Miles said, and black female muralists are even less common. The result: an absence of African American women narratives splashed onto buildings.

Until now.

The culmination of years of research, Brown’s dissertation and a $10,000 grant from Initiatives of Change — with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — led to this. Chelsea Higgs Wise, a longtime South Side resident and organizer, was the force pushing storytellers of racial justice to apply for the granting process.

When Brown was chosen, Higgs Wise knew the mural would be a vehicle for this community’s emotional recovery — its healing.

“I’m a bit terrified, but it’s pieces like this that give me hope,” Higgs Wise said. “It’s where South Side Richmond is still holding on.”

In its sketching stages, when the mural was merely outlines of female figures, a woman came up to Brown while she was staring at the silhouettes.

“I hope the faces are going to be black,” the woman said.

Brown tried not to cry in response.

As Miles painted, parents who lived in the area would take their daughters to see her process, and to see women, with the same skin color as theirs, celebrated.

When it was finished in November, cars blew their horns as they drove by. Brown, who lives blocks from the mural, has been told residents alter their usual routes to go past the artwork daily.

That’s what Brown had wanted. This belongs to them.


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Art
Richmond-area artist sketches portraits of fighters during a pandemic: COVID-19 survivors

Alfonso Pérez Acosta waits until the house is quiet to pick up the stylus. He peeks toward the rooms where his daughters, ages 4 and 6, finally gave in to sleepiness, before turning back to the basal swirls on green-hued backgrounds.

In the moments before midnight, the white spirals culminate in an intimate portrait of a person within a burgeoning community often overlooked during the coronavirus pandemic: survivors.

“The attention is focused heavily on the numbers; the deaths, the cases, and how somber this world is becoming,” he said in paisa-Bogota accented Spanish. “But in the middle of this, there’s also recovery. I wanted to connect people to that reality.”

By Sunday morning, more than 1 million people across the world who tested positive for the coronavirus have recovered, according to a tracker by Johns Hopkins University. In the U.S., that number is almost 176,000.

Acosta wanted to spotlight those stories.

He uploads the sketches to Instagram, with “-RECOVERED-” underneath each portrait, the person’s name and where they’re from. The Richmond-area artist’s grid now includes a series of 25 snapshots into the lives of humans he calls superheroes.

People like 96-year-old Anita Hernandez, a mother of seven kids in Colorado so tough her children call her “Wonder Woman”; Cornelia Ras, a Netherlands native who at 107 has survived two world wars, the Spanish influenza in 1918 and now the coronavirus; Yanira Soriano, 36, who after being in a coma for 12 days in a New York hospital and giving birth on April 3, finally cradled her newborn son. Dozens of health care workers lined the walls with roaring cheers as she left the hospital.

Acosta wanted people to see what he saw: the humanity, the resilience, the hushed reality of happy moments in the midst of an illness that’s ravaged the globe. Quickly after posting his first portrait, comments flooded in from around the world with stories of survival and life after testing positive for COVID-19.

“This was not just for me, but for my daughters, my family,” Acosta said. “It’s important to feel like we’re doing something.”

Acosta, 39, started the Casa Lápiz youth arts program at the Sacred Heart Center, a Richmond nonprofit that focuses on education programming for Latino families, for kids to have a reprieve from navigating the English language and school.

A Colombia-born artist, Acosta has used his art to advocate for black and Latino communities. He’s centered the heart of his work on immigrants, who Acosta said are experts in adjusting — coping with the grief and loss that come with leaving a country so tied to their soul.

In a way, he said, “people now feel like us ... and that brings us together.”

Members of the local Latino community introduced him to Carmen Coglio, the subject of one of the 25 portraits currently up on Acosta’s Instagram account.

A Spanish interpreter for Bon Secours and Henrico County Public Schools, Coglio hoped sharing her story of overcoming COVID-19 would fill a gap that’s often lost in pandemic conversations: Not all positive tests produce a tragic outcome.

Her symptoms, which lasted more than a week, included severe body aches, a fever that didn’t subside, nausea and loss of taste. She feels lucky that respiratory issues, a common side effect to the virus, never took hold.

Coglio, 63, is a week shy of a month’s recovery, and has tested negative for the virus twice, a customary protocol for clinically recovered patients.

Even then, she pushes daydreams of inviting her sons over for a Chilean dinner, complete with bistec a lo pobre, to the side. The beef tenderloin topped with fries and fried eggs would be a fitting celebration of her husband of 34 years, who died in 2018, she said. It was his favorite.

“Soon,” she said.

She doesn’t want to leave anything to chance.

“Thank God for technology,” she continued. “But you still crave the warmth of someone’s skin, to be able to hug each other, share a meal together ... it’s why we need to be here for each other however we can.”

Her sons still call every day. Friends, coworkers and neighbors drop off food and check in. In her recovery, she’s seen a city come together. She’s seen love manifest.

It’s a love that Acosta sees in his daughters, who, after TV stations broadcast his story, approached him in confusion.

“Oh, so you’re a REAL artist now,” his daughters said.

He just laughed in response.


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Local
Maggie Walker students to launch online classes for elementary school-aged children

As the COVID-19 pandemic upended the lives of schoolchildren across the country, a group of friends at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School asked what they could do to help.

Gov. Ralph Northam ordered schools closed March 13. So Justin Goldman, Shreya Malani, Bella Grace Finck and Ria Bakshi, all juniors at the magnet school, decided to reach kids where they are, with virtual classes designed for elementary students.

“I think a lot of us also have younger siblings, so we saw that a lot of kids aren’t really occupied with work. They’re spending a lot of time watching TV,” said Malani, who will be focusing on the math portion of the initiative. “So we thought of a way to keep kids engaged with their classmates and give back to the community.”

The group so far has organized a book club and math, trivia and yoga classes, set to launch May 11. The program, Project EngageRVA, is cost-optional, with proceeds going to the Central Virginia COVID-19 Response Fund.

The students planned to ask for $5 per class and $20 to participate in the book club, but with jobless claims soaring, the group changed course.

“We realize that in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s been difficult for families to keep a steady income, and we’d like to include all students from the Richmond area,” Goldman said.

The students said they want children to learn, have fun and remain engaged with classmates, so they picked group offerings through Zoom over one-on-one tutoring.

“We wanted to provide classes that were fun but still educational and not exactly the same type of thing you’d see in a classroom,” Bakshi said. “We do want to help educate the younger kids, but it’s not like they aren’t doing any schoolwork.

“We just wanted to give them a more structured environment in which they can make better connections with each other and have better conversations with each other.”

The group is encouraging families to sign children up for the classes with a friend since socializing is a critical part of younger students’ education.

“They don’t have the same access to technology and cellphones that middle schoolers and high schoolers get,” Finck said. “They’re getting this socialization they would normally be getting from school, just in a different setting.”

The group hopes to carry the initiative forward after stay-at-home rules relax.

“We do want to see this be successful, even once it’s OK to go back out again. I think it would be cool to turn this into a program once it’s not virtual,” Goldman said.

While each student has a particular section of the initiative they’ll focus on, they all decided to switch shifts for yoga.

“We think that’s a good way to relax and release some energy during this stressful time,” Goldman said.

The classes will be available at ProjectEngageRVA.org.