Monday, December 3, 2007

Carver Promise aims to unite VCU, Community, improve education


By Ginnie Seger

Within the brightly colored walls of Carver Elementary School sit two nondescript rooms. To outsiders, they may look like just a set of offices. But for the Carver children, this is a place where dreams are promised.

The offices house the Carver Promise, a project for first-, second- and third-graders. The program has made a pledge to these students: They will receive not only mentoring as they continue school but also help in applying for college.

Virginia Commonwealth University helps keep that promise. With three other colleges, VCU provides mentors who work with Carver students on reading, math and other skills.

That’s one of several ways VCU lends a helping hand to the Carver community. Under its Division of Community Engagement, the university has established the Carver-VCU Partnership. The goal of the partnership is to improve the quality of life for Carver residents through projects ranging from the Carver Promise to back-to-school drives and home beautification campaigns. At the same time, the partnership gives VCU students an opportunity to become engaged in the neighborhood.

Brenda Drew is the executive director for the Carver Promise. She relies heavily on VCU students to run the mentoring program and believes that volunteering is an important part of an education.

“College kids have a great opportunity to expose themselves in terms of maturing and really saying, ‘What kind of person am I?’ They’re growing intellectually. It’s very cool for them to grow socially; it’s very self fulfilling,” Drew said.

Most of the students at Carver Elementary are from Gilpin Court, the largest and oldest public housing development in Richmond.

According to the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, Gilpin Court has 764 households with roughly 1,130 children under 18. Around 700 households are headed by single females with an average annual household income of $8,076.

Because of such poverty, children often lack access to such resources such as the Internet. So VCU’s Division of Community Engagement provides a computer lab at the Ackell Residence Center, a VCU dorm located in the Carver neighborhood. The lab is not only for Carver Elementary students but also for other members of the Carver community.

Ronald Brown is a Carver resident and the community development coordinator for the Carver-VCU Partnership, which was created 12 years ago. He believes the projects help bring together the community and the university, which can sometimes seem like adversaries.

“It’s nice when we could work hand and hand and minimize that barrier between us that ‘I’m from the university, you’re from the neighborhood,’” Brown said.

Tiffany Jones, a VCU sophomore majoring in fashion design, volunteers as a computer lab monitor for the Carver-VCU Partnership. She believes that the partnership is necessary for the university and the community.

“Some have the impression that VCU is taking over the area, and this is a community and historic place, and it’s really important that VCU shows a more caring side. If we’re going to be in their space, at least do something to include them and help out the community. VCU definitely has the resources,” Jones said.

The newest class of 76 first and second graders was inducted into the Carver Promise last week.

Drew, a former high-school principal, came out of retirement to work for the Carver Promise. Becoming an executive director for a nonprofit organization is not what a lot of people envision for their retirement. But for Drew, there would be no other choice.

“I love it,” she said. “I feel like I am helping someone who needs my help the most.”

For Africa

VCU students throw benefit for Ghana

By Ginnie Seger

For Africa

More than 5,000 miles from Virginia, the African country of Ghana may seem like a world apart to VCU students. But thanks to Professor Chris Burnside, a group of VCU students consider Ghana a very personal part of their world.

Burnside is teaching a class titled Making a Difference II. Although he has been teaching dance for 20 years, you won’t find him standing in front of the class demonstrating a move; instead he is asking a group of 15 students to step outside the classroom to throw a benefit performance and silent auction – all with the hope of changing the lives of children in Ghana.
Burnside was inspired to create the class after a trip to the West African country in 2006. He wanted a class that would not just work on concepts but would actually host an event. “No make believe; it’s real,” Burnside said.

The class is made up of students from all majors. They were all selected by Burnside based on their passion and enthusiasm for the cause. The class is broken into different subcommittees based on students’ strength. Burnside serves as the director, making sure everything gets done.
What the students have created is a three-night benefit performance entitled “For Africa.” The production, set for Nov. 1-3, will include performances by various dance companies, poetry readings and a performance from Burnside himself.

Proceeds from the event will go to Sovereign Global Mission, a non-governmental organization in Ghana that works with VCU’s School of Social Work to provide children with basic needs such as food, health care and education.
The mission covers the tuition and related expenses of Ghanaian children so they can attend school. The group also is building a child development center that will include an orphanage and a school.

For Burnside, it is especially important that VCU students learn about Ghana, after his own trip to the country inspired him out of retirement and into the classroom.
“Ghana had a huge effect on me. I felt everything in the world over there. I was saddened by what I saw. I was sort of repulsed at times at how people were having to live.”
Although the experience was shocking for Burnside, he left inspired by the spirit of the people in Ghana.

“Ghanaian people were innately happier on a daily basis than Americans. They seem to appreciate life a lot, so there was great joy in the midst of all this too,” he said.

This inspiration has found its way into the classroom and into the hearts of many VCU students, who now see the work they are doing as much more than just another three-credit class.

“Because of this class, my life has drastically changed – my whole entire world as I knew it changed,” Brittany Sponaugle, a Social Work major said. She was so moved by her experiences in the class that she recently changed her major from anthropology to social work and is planning to travel to Ghana with the School of Social Work to help build the development center.

The cost to feed one child in Ghana for a whole year is $66. The class hopes to collect more than $20,000 for the program, which will go toward children’s school fees and construction costs.

Although the purpose of the benefit is to raise money for the children of Ghana, the class is careful not to devalue the Ghanaian way of life.

Lauren DeSimone, a VCU senior and a member of the class, believes the mood of the benefit will leave the audience with a sense of appreciation, not condescension.

“It’s not as much as coming to a rescue as much as it is celebrating people for who they are as they are,” said DeSimone, who is majoring in sculpture. “We’re allowing them to exist as they are; we’re just facilitating their resources.”

How to get tickets or volunteer for the concert
The “For Africa” benefit concert will take place Nov. 1, 2 and 3 and will feature performances from Richmond-area groups such as:
Ezibu Muntu African Dance Company
African American Repertory Theatre
Dr. Njeri Jackson, a poet and VCU faculty member
Richmond Ballet Minds in Motion’s Team XXL
Tickets are available for $26 at the Grace Street Theater Box Office.
If you are interested in volunteering at the event, there will be informational meetings at 5:30 p.m. Thursday [Oct. 11] in the VCU Commons Alumni Room and at 6 p.m.on Oct. 25 in the Fine Arts Building, 1000 W. Broad St.