by Tom O’Donnell
Seven-year-old Jake sleeps on his aunt’s couch one week and on his grandfather’s floor flanked by two of his cousins the next. Jake and his mom are in between stable housing, although his mother is on several lists for something long-term. For Jake, getting a good night’s sleep is never easy, and that makes paying attention in his second-grade classroom difficult.
Unfortunately, there are many kids like Jake throughout Greater Richmond who are sleeping on floors, sofas, and chairs, rather than beds. Last month, Bridging RVA changed that for 150 area children who received brand new twin-size beds (frames, mattresses, and box springs), plus sheets, blankets, and pillows.
“Lack of a good night’s sleep comes at a cost to a child’s well-being,” says Lee Ann Sawyer, executive director of the Richmond nonprofit, Bridging RVA. “We believe taking care of the most fundamental part of a good night’s sleep – having a bed – goes a long way in helping nurture healthy children.”
Founded in 2014, Bridging RVA’s mission is to connect people from all walks of life to find common ground and discover one another in new and more meaningful ways. In the community, this mission manifests in annual outreach projects. One of Bridging RVA’s projects – the distribution of 150 beds to children in need – has happened every October since 2015.
According to Sawyer, the bed distribution project touches more
than the children and their families; it has a lasting impact on volunteers. “Walking into a bare cinder block apartment, furnished with just a sofa, table, and mats on the floor for sleeping, was shocking,” says Kelly Long, a volunteer with Bridging RVA since 2016.“Setting up the beds and seeing the reactions on the faces of the children and their families was priceless and life-giving,” says Long.
A collaborative community partnership plays an important role in the initiatives undertaken by Bridging RVA, says Sawyer. To meet the organization’s established goals for the bed project, school officials and counselors from social service agencies identify, vet, and provide the names of children without beds. Individuals, businesses, and faith-based organizations donate sheets and blankets and contribute financially. More than one hundred volunteers with trucks, vans, and cars deliver and set up the new beds for the children.
Bridging RVA also works to support teachers and faculty at local Title 1 schools (schools with large concentrations of students from low-income homes) during teacher
appreciation week. Teachers at Title 1 schools rarely receive the same level of appreciation as their counterparts in more affluent school districts. Last spring, Bridging RVA’s Annual Teacher Appreciation Initiative provided lunch and gifts to more than 2,000 teachers at twenty-six Richmond-area schools. “The lunch, t-shirts, and gifts were a blessing,” said Courtney Wirt, a teacher from Falling Creek Middle School in North Chesterfield. “It felt so good to be appreciated this way.”
In addition to these scheduled annual projects, Bridging RVA engages in rapid response efforts throughout the year. “Sometimes the coupling of an idea with action needs to happen quickly,” says Sawyer. “There are needs – such as fixing the car of a single mom, paying a utility bill for an elderly person, assisting a hearing-impaired man with hearing aids in order to keep his job – that don’t require a major initiative.”
Bridging RVA has organized a network of volunteers that can mobilize quickly and respond to needs within the community as they are identified. “We place a high value on volunteer experience and are astounded by the dedication and hard work of volunteers who give their time and talent to each initiative,” says Sawyer. “It seems to reason that those being served are the ones being blessed, but many of our volunteers leave feeling as though they were the ones who were blessed the most.”