Day after day, Anthony sat at a desk in a Richmond high school classroom, trying desperately to focus on learning algebra while he worried about a much more pressing issue: where he would sleep that night. “Maybe you sleep on your aunt’s couch one night, but you know you can’t stay there again,” said Anthony. The teen wondered about where his next meal was coming from or transportation for the following day. “If I spend the night at a friend’s place,” he asked, “how do I get to school in the morning?”
Homelessness – permanent and temporary – is a challenge too many Richmond-area students face. During the 2015-2016 school year, 1,513 students in Richmond Public Schools were identified as homeless. It is creating insurmountable barriers to academic success, the most promising path to a stable future.
Change the World RVA, winner of the 2016 Governor’s Award for Outstanding Community Organization, is the only nonprofit in the region dedicated to supporting high school and college students who face homelessness and unstable housing. Natalie May, president of Change the World RVA, was deeply affected by watching this specific age group try to manage desperate situations without targeted assistance. “These kids were trying to accomplish things and be a contributing part of the community with little or no support,” says May.
Founded in 2012 as a ministry of Bon Air United Methodist Church, the organization’s mission is to help homeless students succeed in high school and college. According to May, the core is an afterschool program where high school students receive tutoring support and case-management services, listen to guest speakers, enjoy a home-cooked meal, and relax with friends.
The team at Change the World RVA works to create a network of caring adults and peers for each student. The students also get in on the action, running their own food pantry and clothing closet. The organization provides many essential services: emergency transportation through a network of volunteer drivers, cell phones to increase student access to job opportunities and Internet access for schoolwork, annual eye exams and other healthcare assistance, housing support, and individualized birthday celebrations.
Unlike programs and state-supported services that only serve kids under eighteen, Change the World RVA helps students prepare for college by providing an annual Launch to College retreat. May says sending a high school graduate off to college is something she treasures. “We have worked with students to outfit college dorms with furnishings, provide laptops and move-in assistance, and offer financial support for textbooks and other expenses,” said May. The organization also arranges host homes for students who need somewhere to stay during extended college breaks.
In May 2017, Change the World RVA celebrated its first two college graduates when Elaine Williams (VCU) and Adrienna Alexander (Longwood) earned their degrees in social work. According to May, program alumnae return to serve as mentors and role models for the younger students.
“Change the World RVA is a small, all-volunteer organization,” says May. “All financial support – whether it’s from individual donors, church and community groups, or small grants – goes directly to support students and programming. It’s rewarding to see these young people have opportunities. All kids deserve a chance to succeed.”