When she was two, Zemon Briggs’ mother enrolled her and her siblings in childcare, summer programs, and other enrichment activities at FRIENDS Association for Children in Richmond. As a young adult, FRIENDS helped Briggs apply for college scholarships and loans. Now in her thirties with four daughters of her own, she never considered sending her girls anywhere else.
“FRIENDS is special to me,” Briggs says. “They are very active in the community.”
Since its doors first opened as an orphanage in 1871 in Richmond’s historic Jackson Ward neighborhood, FRIENDS has served tens of thousands of children and families with a wide range of comprehensive services including licensed childcare, after-school enrichment programs, summer literacy activities, music and performing arts, health education, GED, and resume-writing classes for parents, and a family development series. Each year, FRIENDS has more than a thousand children participating in everything from homework assistance and tutoring classes to ballet.
About FRIENDS Association, Briggs says: “They provide a solid foundation for children and families.”
Serenia Remley, director of program operations for the nonprofit organization, backs up Briggs’ assessment. “The offerings at FRIENDS extend beyond simply providing daycare. The organization supports the entire family,” says Remley. “Our social workers assist parents with family issues and help them navigate through the sometimes challenging social services system.”
To support working families, FRIENDS operates two multi-service child development centers from six in the morning until six at night – one in historic Church Hill and the other in Jackson Ward, in the Gilpin Court public housing development, which Remley describes as having one of the highest concentrations of poverty on the East Coast.
“Children and youth need to come into contact with as many positive individuals as possible to see there is a way to break the cycle,” Remley says. “In addition to our staff, volunteers play a vital role in establishing positive relationships through a variety of activities, including physical fitness, health and nutrition, and financial literacy.” FRIENDS also enlists area musicians who provide free individual and group music lessons and performing arts classes.
Adds Remley, “Research shows that music helps brain development, supports literacy learning and is linked to increasing math and critical thinking skills. Education is the key to breaking the cycle, and our early childhood education and development programs provide a strong foundation and on-going support to succeed in school and in life.”
FRIENDS’ Executive Director J. David Young describes the 142-year old organization as a safe and caring environment for families working to give their children the best education possible. “We believe that each child deserves encouragement, a high-quality education, and interaction with positive role models,” says Young.
That’s where FRIENDS comes in, providing caring staff, quality programs, and engagement opportunities for children who may not otherwise have this chance. “It is not uncommon for our students to study music with a member of the Richmond Symphony, learn about healthy meals from an Aramark chef, or hear a pep talk from VCU’s head basketball coach Shaka Smart,” Young said. “The work we do at FRIENDS is driven by our desire to encourage academic achievement, good citizenship, and success in life.”
As for Briggs, the Richmond woman appreciates the breadth of family services available through FRIENDS, but is particularly touched by the dedication of the people. “It’s helpful to have people in the community who support kids and their parents,” she said. “They really care!”