Everyday—every single day—we pass people in our city who are homeless. We drive by neighborhoods in decline. We worry about our community—particularly the children living in seemingly precarious environments.
Maybe we pass a dollar to someone through our driver’s side window. Maybe we cast our votes for candidates promising to improve life those at risk. Maybe we donate to local charities, service groups and places of worship, hoping funds collected will make a difference. Maybe none of it feels like enough…and we wish someone would step in and actually do something.
How would you describe what is you do with Embrace Richmond?
I’m the founder and Executive Director of Embrace Richmond. Embrace is a faith-based collective that strengthens communities from the inside out—by training, coaching, and connecting neighborhood and congregational leaders in asset-based community development (ABCD).
Asset-Based Community Development is a large and growing movement that considers local assets as the primary building blocks of sustainable community development. We believe neighborhood residents themselves are the primary building blocks for a healthy neighborhood. We believe people of faith can play an important role in strengthening neighborhoods by supporting neighborhood leaders.
Half my time [is spent] coaching and training congregational leaders in how to implement asset-based community development principals in their mission’s efforts. The other half of my time is spent coaching and training neighborhood leaders from across metro-Richmond in how bring their community building ideas to life.
What was the catalyst that made you decide YOU personally needed to take action?
In 2004, I met a homeless woman who had the dream of helping other homeless individuals because so many people had helped her. I loved her pay-it-forward attitude. I helped her bring her dream to life, and watched the amazing transformation that took place in her.
At the time, I was in seminary at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and knew helping people discover and live their calling was what God had called me to do. What started out as my homeless friend’s desire to help other homeless families, grew into the largest furniture bank on the eastern seaboard. In 2008, we transferred the furniture bank part of our ministry off to CARITAS.
Please tell us a bit about how you got started…
During the years that I ran the furniture bank, I saw a number of families returning to homelessness. I realized we could not have a significant impact by simply handing out furniture. So in 2008, we began to focus on community development.
I knew that the best way to strengthen a community was from the inside out. I had a few friends through my furniture bank program who had moved into Hillside Court. Over the next five years, we began identifying neighbors who cared about their community and began gathering neighbors together to discuss the issues that were of concern to them.
The biggest concern was for the safety of the children. A lovely resident named Patrice Shelton stepped up to take the lead on what became the Family Support Team. I watched Patrice over the next three years as she identified leaders, build additional teams, nurtured and cared for the residents of Hillside Court.
By 2013, it was obvious that Patrice had built a wonderful team of resident leaders and our role shifted from being the lead agency to simply supporting Patrice and her team. We formed the Hillside Court Partnership to carry the work forward.
What is the goal of the organizations with whom you work?
Our goal is to strengthen communities from the inside out. We measure success by the number of resident leaders who are engaged in community building activities and by the level of civic engagement from within the community. We believe neighborhoods are healthiest when neighbors are engaged.
What do you feel has been accomplished so far?
We were founded in 2005, and over the past ten years we have helped neighborhood leaders establish more than 40 neighborhood-led initiatives including food security projects, family strengthening groups and youth development projects. We have also started and/or helped to strengthen the following organizations and associations:
- Working in partnership with formerly homeless individuals, Embrace started the Furniture Bank. In 2008, we spun the operation off to CARITAS, the largest homeless services provider in Richmond, with the express requirement that homeless and formerly homeless individuals would continue to operate the program.
- We started The Hillside Court Partnership (HCP) and transferred ownership to the local Hillside residents in 2013. HCP now supports nine resident-led initiatives.
- We helped Northminster Church start the Life Together Collaborative which supported the growth and development of three resident led initiatives.
- We helped strengthen the Brookland Park Area Association with the goal of working together toward economic revitalization of the Brookland Park Commercial corridor.
- In 2014 we established the Embrace ABCD Training Institute and over the past year we have coached and trained more than 100 faith leaders in the Richmond area in asset-based community development.
- We are also currently building a new association to support the resident-led initiatives that are emerging in our work in the Historic Brookland Park community.
What makes you proudest personally about your affiliation with the group?
Walking with people who have historically been seen as “recipients of services” as they take ownership of their community and bring their dreams for their neighborhood to life. Every neighborhood in this city is rich with gifts, talents and dreams. I love helping people discover the richness of their community.
One of my proudest movements was when I published my first book in 2010 called From the Sanctuary to the Streets. The book is the story of my journey from suburban soccer mom to inner city minister. In the book, I interview more than 20 individuals—many of whom were formerly homeless. It was an incredibly interesting and personally rewarding writing opportunity.
What’s next on-deck?
As our congregational training has grown over the past year, our opportunities to coach congregational leaders is also growing. This coming year we will be working with leaders in 2-3 additional neighborhoods. My dream is that by 2020 we are coaching neighborhood and congregational leaders in 20 neighborhoods across the metro region.
I am also working on my second book titled Remembering Forgotten. The goal of this book is to paint a picture of what inside out community transformation looks like and provide people with the tools they need to do this kind of work in their own communities.
How can others get involved?
The best place to start is with our SHIFT training. Through the training, participants gain an understanding of how asset-based community development is different than traditional relief approaches to poverty.
We are also currently raising funds for our Dream Catcher Project. This is a summer internship project for youth from low-income communities. These young people will play a key role in helping map the assets of their community by conducting interviews of local residents. We would like to launch 8 teams this summer and need to raise $1,250 per team.
If individuals are interested in learning more about Embrace Richmond, our upcoming training events, or how to donate they can visit our website at www.embracerichmond.org.
How does your family feel about what you are doing?
My family is wonderful. My husband has been my biggest champion. There have been many times when I wanted to give up but he always encouraged me to keep going. He is the rock that has remained unshakable in spite of some really challenging times.
I have three daughters ages 21, 19 and 16. When they were young, I was concerned that all the hours I spent serving in the city would somehow make them resentful of my work. Now that they are older and can understand the impact we have had through Embrace Richmond, I can see how significantly it has shaped them.
My oldest is interested in public health, my middle daughter has a heart for helping people learn to love to read and my youngest is interested in politics and wants to change some of our more unjust systems. They are all incredibly compassionate and deeply caring young ladies.
I once had a Bible study leader who said, “If you are taking care of God’s family, God will take care of yours.” I have been blessed to see the truth in that statement.
Please feel free to share additional info you’d like to share with the RichmondMom readership.
All I can say is “Live your Dreams!”
Wendy, thank you so much for your commitment to strengthening Richmond’s communities…and for being a RichmondMom with a mission!