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Fulton Hill's Neighborhood Resource Center

“A Place Where People Can Connect And Get Started With Things: Fulton Hill’s Neighborhood Resource Center?

During the winter of 2000, Richmond’s Fulton Hill community saw the end of a community institution: the neighborhood post office. A post office you say, a community institution? Greater Fulton, a community ripped apart by wholesale housing demolitions in the 70’s, drugs and gangs in the 80’s and 90’s and troubling levels of unemployment and crime in the past ten years isn’t a neighborhood that lies down idly and waits for outsiders to come to its aid. They get organized, stay vigilant and get things done. Fearing the post office would become “a boarded up source of blight,? Fulton Hill community activist Mary Lou Decossaux rallied the community with a grand vision for rejuvenating the building at 1519 Williamsburg Road near the intersection with Darbytown Road.

Decossaux, a fourteen-year resident of Fulton Hill, has long been involved politically throughout the city. For years her time was divided between her work as the head of Community Organizing efforts at the William Byrd Community House in Oregon Hill, being a coordinator for the Living Wage Coalition in the city and her ongoing work in Fulton Hill. These days, she’s resigned her post at William Byrd and is focusing all of her time and energy on the aforementioned post office as the Executive Director of the organization now in the building, known as the Neighborhood Resource Center (NRC). Plans for the center are extensive and ambitious. Some programs are already running in the building, which is still under renovation and more programs are on the way as soon as walls are erected and supplies are moved in.

A tri-fold sheet that details the mission, steps and programs of the NRC highlights the wide reaching area of coverage that will be offered at the center and at which point they will be implemented. As of today GED classes are being offered on Tuesday and Friday afternoons. As work progresses, libraries for adults and children will be added. Computer education will be offered for everything from job training and literacy to music and arts. Under the community organizing umbrella will be space for groups to meet, fundraising assistance, and youth and adult community organizing training. By next year work will begin on a fully functioning, health conscious café to be located in the building.

The Board of Directors of the NRC is diverse in age, ethnicity, experience and even residency. Of the seven board members there are three African-Americans, four Caucasians, six women, one man and two non-Fulton residents. Member Rose Pollard was involved with the Black Panther Party in her younger days. Of the seven board members, fifty-seven year-old Joyce Monroe, owner of Joyce’s Beauty Lounge, a block east of the NRC, and a resident of Henrico County may be the biggest community pillar of the group. “I feel like in order to try and help people you gotta take over.? Monroe has done that since day one. In the planning stages of the NRC’s evolution she offered up her shop as the organization’s meeting locale and a place to host fundraisers. Now that the space is shaping up, Monroe, President of the Board, says she’ll “Do whatever she can to help out.? Often times when you hear talk like that amongst neighborhood organizers it is hollow rhetoric that holds little weight. Not with Monroe and the others at the NRC. They mean it. It’s their philosophy and what makes them unique and able to accomplish so much, with so little.
Charlie Schmidt, a twenty-nine year old VCU student who is an ally of Mary Lou’s from her days with the Living Wage Coalition and an NRC intern, explained the appeal of the structure of the NRC: “Everyone’s involved, I mean our Executive Director will wash cars and bang nails. Our President of the Board will bake cookies for the bake sale or she’ll go grocery shopping; it’s genuine. I think the NRC has such a welcoming environment. It’s grassroots, so there isn’t anybody else to talk to. There’s no boss, or higher institution that you’re answering to. You come to the NRC and here are the people; they’re right there. There’s always a dialogue going on and problems are solved immediately. I think for tons of people that’s refreshing.?

The NRC’s eldest member and longest Fulton resident, Carrie Lewis, has known Monroe and her beauty shop for years. One day she walked into Joyce’s and Monroe enlisted her to aid in selling tickets for an upcoming NRC benefit. She carried out that task and in time further talks with Monroe, and some with Decossaux, got her involved and got her hooked. Now the 59 year-old, twenty-six year resident and grandmother of two is a board member and the group’s treasurer and can’t get enough of the NRC. “Every time my daughter calls she asks where are you at momma, and I say NRC. She says oh man you got involved with that NRC and you’re hardly home now. This gives me something to do. I used to come home and sit on my butt, but this makes me feel good. I was feeling good anyway, but this makes me feel extra good.?

While attending a benefit yard sale / bake sale / car wash in April, I got to witness Lewis and most of the others in action. While holding down fort at the food stand, grilling burgers and selling slices of banana bread and pound cake, Lewis detailed the importance of the NRC to her long time neighborhood. “[The] NRC is important because there isn’t any kind of center here in Fulton where the whole community can come for classes, from zero to ninety-nine. The computer lab we definitely need because a lot of people don’t have computers in their houses. The library is a definite need because the nearest one is up on Church Hill and people can’t get to it. When the cafeteria opens, that’s gonna be a good place to help get the children healthy and overall I just think the center is gonna be a good asset to the community.?
Sitting twenty feet away from Lewis, forty-nine year-old Karen Ress was collecting money for items sold at the yard sale and selling raffle tickets for a DVD player. Ress just moved back to Richmond after living out of state for years. She and her husband fell in love with a house in Fulton Hill and moved there in December of last year. After meeting Decossaux at a civic association meeting and hearing of the NRC’s search for tutors, Ress volunteered and now takes on the role of providing additional tutoring to those students struggling to meet the GED requirements.

As a mother and a tutor, Ress spoke of the needs of the community: “I can tell you that there is a huge need for after school activities and for when school’s not in session. Providing something for people who are looking for work. There are a lot of people who are at loose ends and hopefully this will be a place where people can connect and get started with things.? Ress, a newcomer to both the NRC and the neighborhood is embracing the ethos of the NRC rather quickly and seems to be right at home. “The NRC just pulls people to it? said multi-tasking Schmidt who on the day of the benefit was straightening books, washing cars and finding time to talk to me. He juggles roles and duties at the center with the skill of someone whose been doing this for forty years.

Schmidt speaks passionately about what he sees as the uniqueness of the NRC, which he says is unlike any other community center he’s ever heard of. “It intrigued me the most that a group of community volunteers, elders, residents who had been fighting the social ills of Fulton for years came together. That fascinated me the most. Then when I started learning more about the programs and the mission and the drive that’s when I got sold on it. The way things are set up with people bartering labor in return for use of the space, the fact that everyone’s a volunteer, no paid staff. The bridging of the gap between youth and the elderly, people coming in from the counties, VCU and VUU, the west end, social workers, city workers, it’s been sort of like a big mixing bowl.?
As I finished up my talk with Charlie and bid farewell to the others, some dark, fast moving thunderclouds rolled into the area. I was in my car, preparing to leave for the day when the skies opened up and rain began to pour all over the yard sale items scattered throughout the parking lot. I got out of the car to pitch in and got to witness directly the spirit and camaraderie I had been hearing about all day long. The intern, the executive director, the guy who builds walls, the grandmother, the raffle seller, the car washers and all of the others associated with the Neighborhood Resource Center were running frantically and loading the goods inside of their wonderful dream in the making. I was trying to envision how a similar scene would play out at the United Way or a Boys and Girls Club. I think we all know the answer to that one.

The NRC is slated to open its doors for regular hours and programs this summer. To learn more about the center, become involved or to make a donation to the 501(c)3 non-profit contact the Neighborhood Resource Center at: 1519 Williamsburg Road Richmond, VA. 23231 or by calling 864-5797.

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