Seeing The Big Picture At The Big Learn

The James River, our natural resources, recess, state government, and combined sewer systems: what’s the big idea? If you were able to join us on January 19 for the Big Learn, you know where I’m going with this. Our panelists did a great job providing background on the Kepone crisis, the hard battle fought to clean the river, and why it is important for all of us to spend time outside.

In 1975, Kepone, a toxic insecticide related to DDT and produced in Hopewell by Life Science Products, made national headlines as workers fell ill from exposure to the neurotoxin and the state halted production. A few months later, the state also shut down the James River to fishing as it became clear the water was poisoned. Because Kepone slowly breaks down in the environment, the commercial fishing ban lasted for 13 years, devastating the river’s fishing industry and contributing to the James River being identified as one of the most polluted rivers in America at the time.

The Kepone disaster directly led to the founding of the Virginia Environmental Endowment (VEE) in 1977 as the result of a visionary ruling by Judge Robert R. Merhige, Jr. When the US District Court for the eastern District of Virginia fined Allied Chemical for polluting the James River, $8 million of the $13.2 million fine was used to fund the creation of the VEE. Today, an independent grant-making foundation, the VEE, has awarded millions of dollars to improve environmental quality, literacy, and partnerships throughout the state and beyond.

Thanks to the Clean Water Act and the efforts of local organizations like the James River Association (and a few hurricanes), the river and its wildlife have bounced back and our river and parks are now highlighted as outdoor destinations. For the first time in decades, the James River Association has rated the river’s health at a B- in the State of the James report. But our panelists caution, “They grade on a curve.” A B- is great news for us, but there is still work to be done.

Like many old cities, Richmond has a combined sewer system. Simply put, a combined sewer system is when storm runoff and wastewater share the same pipes. A great improvement to large cities in the mid 1800’s, these underground pipes worked to dry out streets—streets that were literally urban cesspools as people used their newly invented flush toilets. Initially, the waters ran and were discharged directly into waterways. We saw the error of this system and in the early 20th century, sewage treatment plants were added to clean the wastewater before it hit the streams. But there’s a catch. Even today, when too much storm water is added to the pipes, we have what they call a “Combined Sewer Overflow” (CSO), which is exactly what you think it is. After heavy rains, the system is overwhelmed and excess water is released into a stream or river. The City of Richmond tracks and reports these instances online here. In Richmond, the major overflow points are found on the banks of the James River and Gillies Creek.

In addition to CSO incidents, today’s threats to the river come from, well, simply put, us. Chemicals and improper cleaning of pet waste from our yards is a significant source of pollution to the river.

There are still large commercial concerns as well, as was discussed during the Q&A when we talked about the dewatering of coal ash ponds on the James River (DEQ permits were issued with no limit to the volume of wastewater and the amount of toxic chemicals that are discharged into the James).

We also connected the health of our rivers and parks with education and development for children. As education relies more on standardized tests to evaluate teacher and student performance, teachers are reluctant to lose precious instruction time. Some schools have greatly reduced or even eliminated recess. If a child spends all day at school inside, then comes home to computers, smart phones, and gaming systems, how does this effect brain development, attention spans, creativity, imagination, and physical health?

At the end of the day, there is a very clear Big Picture. Each of us relies on the James River and its tributaries for water (one third of all Virginians). And living in Greater Richmond, we’re all on the Chesapeake Bay watershed as well, which is an important part of our state commerce. Recreation is also becoming an important driver for our regional tourism, which contributes heavily to state resources generated through sales taxes in our stylish hotels and award-winning restaurants.

After the Big Learn, I certainly felt as if I’d learned a lot. Good stewardship of our parks and rivers has a significant impact on our children and economy in addition to our basic personal health. And the topic is timely. As we look at the disaster, chaos, and suffering in Flint, Michigan, it’s a good time to take stock of where our own water comes from and how we can become active advocates in ensuring it is clean, safe, drinkable, swimmable, fishable, and overall, enjoyable. We are, after all, the River City.


Southside Child Development Center Turns 85!

From my first time listening to Sheila Pleasants, Executive Director of Southside Child Development Center, speak when accepting the very FIRST Impact 100 grant I knew she was someone I wanted to know. Not just on a professional level, but on a personal level as well.

When attending the Big Give in following years, I always made an effort to speak with Sheila and learn how things were going with Southside and any new developments. Her energy level and excitement about the children in the center made me know that I wanted to work with her one day.

After many years of looking for possible job openings within Southside Child Development Center, October 2014 was the month I had been waiting for! There was a job opening for Fund Development Manager. This was my chance to finally apply and work with a nonprofit in the community that had the same passion for children as I do. Their mission is to give children opportunities very early, and help them enter kindergarten confident and ready to learn. By providing low-cost, quality care and education, they enable whole families to prepare for a brighter future and set a foundation that the children will need to compete in the workplace and break cycles of poverty in their communities.

After many months of waiting and panel interviews, I was the chosen one to take the role of Fund Development Manager starting January 2015. I have never been more excited to start a position in my life. I was asked to attend their board meeting in December to meet the board members that I will be working close with – this board of directors, which is led by John Jay Oakey, is like no other board I have ever worked with. From the moment I heard the first introductions and the words “let each of us know how we can help you,” I knew this was a board that was fully vested in Southside Child Development Center. Like most boards, they are volunteers and have regular jobs and families that they still need to give 100% too. However, you would have thought this was their job, to help the center and take care of the staff and children. That was and is “their” mission.

My first week started off with writing a grant and we haven’t stopped since. The Board and Executive Director, Sheila Pleasants have a vision for revamping the current structure of Southside and our involvement in the community. The passion is seen by anyone that steps foot into a board meeting or comes to volunteer at the Center.

Having Impact 100 give us their first grant ever allowed the center to go forward in the direction the Center needed. With the money given we were able to upgrade our flat roof, fix a drainage problem at the front entrance, new interior lighting, upgrade inner doors Hardware, new Energy efficient windows, external security cameras, new external entry doors.

This year is an important year for Southside Child Development Center. It’s our 85th year! This is so exciting because we are in the same building that was built for the Center over 55 years ago. Built just like a school, to help get the children off the streets while the parents had to both work during the depression.

Since then, part of our mission has been a simple but important mission, to provide high-quality child care at approximately one-third the typical rate, Southside makes it possible for low-income parents to participate in the workforce, secure in the knowledge that their children are being well cared for.

My hope is that each of you will take time to come visit the center this year and celebrate with us our 85th year. Without the help of Impact 100 members and the grant we received, the improvements would not have happened. It is because of each of you that the Center is where we are now.

Join us this year with events planned, such as our Annual Breakfast in June and an exciting event coming in September. Stay tuned for more details and visit us on Facebook and our website. This is going to be a fabulous event to raise money for our Center and have involvement in the community with other partners in the nonprofit world. Best yet, it’s our 85th year!!

As Sheila Pleasants once said, ‘Our future can be in good hands if we give our children the right foundation now, the earlier, the better.’

Amanda Lambert

Southside Child Development Center

Fund Development Manager

Taking home the pot of gold: a guest blog from Art 180

I’m writing this blog post as I sit on the RIC Tarmac, awaiting takeoff for a flight that will ultimately transport me to Portland, Oregon. I’m headed there to reconnect with my dear friend Kathleen Lane, who cofounded ART 180 with me in 1998. We’re overdue for a visit, neither of us great about keeping in touch since she moved there in 2001 to start a family.
ART 180 is a different animal from the project we imagined 17 years ago as we sat around Kathleen’s dining room table (we really did that). What hasn’t changed is our belief that young people–especially those living in challenging circumstances–have a lot to say, abundant wisdom, and much to gain from creatively expressing themselves to an attentive audience. It’s why we decided to abandon careers in communications and start a nonprofit, something neither of us had a clue about doing but were willing to learn–or make up–as we followed this path that seemed to be our destiny.
Before we started we made sure there was a need, and interest. Our due diligence uncovered lots of youth-serving organizations with noble missions that stopped short of offering meaningful art programs. The partnership model made perfect sense; we could recruit artists, design programs, procure materials and provide all of that through partners, who had access to young people who stood to benefit.
It was out of that collaborative, partner-based model that ART 180 was born. We were mobile, operating out of rented office space and contracting artists to lead programs at schools and community centers. It worked well for more than a decade, but there were tradeoffs to being a pop-up program: We were beholden to our partners for participants, maintaining a step-removed relationship with young people and their parents. And we struggled to convince teenagers to frequent a site that also served little kids, or to stay after school any later than they had to. Our showcase events were also pop-up, as we installed exhibitions and staged performances that were one night only, in borrowed venues. It was heart-wrenching to see a dozen groups of young artists, who had poured so much of themselves into these beautiful projects for a whole semester, only get an hour or two in the spotlight–and then it was over.
When Impact 100 arrived on the scene in 2010, we had a chance to change that. Challenged to propose a project that would be transformational to ART 180 and to Richmond, we asked ourselves, “What if?” What if we could open an art center just for teenagers, a beautiful space that was accessible and inviting, where we could offer programs in painting and poetry, theater and photography, urban design and hip hop dance. Where teens from all across the city could gather, to make friends, to share deeply of themselves, to develop art skills and life skills, and to have fun. To be welcomed by staff who love them, artists who guide them, mentors who advise them, and peers who have their back. To explore art forms ranging from chorus to choreography to web design to breakdance yoga(!) To mount exhibitions of their own art and that of young people from other organizations and other countries, and to share their time on weekends to work beside adult volunteers to install shows. To host receptions during First Fridays, talking to guests and sharing their stories, and to offer up their testimonies at donor events. To make music and murals and memories and friends. To be accepted, appreciated, understood, loved–and missed when they’re not around. To belong.
So that’s what we did, with help from Impact 100 members. It wasn’t quite that simple, and it took three years as a finalist before we actually took home the pot of gold (and the vote of confidence). The $100,000 we received in 2012 made up the final 20 percent of our capital campaign. We bought ourselves a fabulous ground-floor unit in a historic rehab condominium building in the arts district, built it out, and moved in on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2013. We’ve been hosting teenagers and families and artists and programs and workshops and craft swaps and exhibitions and performances and parties and meetings and trainings ever since. We named it Atlas in honor of the Atlas Baking Company housed there in the early 20th Century. And because, well, it’s a nice name. We’ve come home, and we’ve created a home for some pretty special teens.
Kathleen missed out on all the fun as we pursued this new direction that complements our community programs. But she has visited Atlas–and met Impact members. We hosted a rooftop reception for Impact members the summer after we settled in, conveniently timed during one of her all too rare visits. We had a lot to celebrate.
Marlene Paul
Co-Founder & Executive Director, Art 180

A “Big Learn”ing Opportunity – Stewards of Community & Opportunity

If you missed The Big Learn, you missed something terrific! Carol Anne Lajoie organized the panel and when introducing the moderator, Paul Nolde, she said, “when I reached out to Paul he immediately began waxing poetic and I knew we could not find his equal anywhere in Richmond.” I’m a sucker for people who “wax poetic” with their passion…I was hooked.

The invitation and the newsletter introduced the panel, which got my attention immediately. Jane, Dale, Dave, Alden and Sarah exceeded expectations and they brought the topic of “giving a handup to underserved populations” to life. I’m not an economist. I have no background in loans and leveraging dollars. But I am thrilled that these individuals and the groups they represent do have this knowledge and the passion to accompany it. I loved the hour I spent in their world.

I learned that VCC started with $15 million in government funds that were privatized. That initial investment has grown to $120 million which is loaned for community growth projects. I learned that research shows access to medical care is only a portion of an individual’s health status. Health is equally impacted by housing and employment and transportation. That is why Bon Secour’s SEED program is investing in businesses that will start up in or move to the Church Hill area. RVAWorks has a mission of an “inclusive economy” for marginalized and vulnerable individuals — empowering people at the base of the pyramid who are struggling financially.

Most of all I loved the stories of real individuals who are benefitting from a handup. Alden, of Alden’s Skirts, told us about the lovely woman she mentors and helps in Belize. Because of malnutrition and genetics 25% of the children born to Mayans in Belize suffer from spina bifida. Alden is a marriage and family therapist and she understands the stress that comes to a family with the challenges of a handicapped child. As a result of these stresses, many of the Mayan women are single mothers of special needs children. The woman Alden works with was a seamstress at a resort. She lost her job due to frequent medical appointments for her child. With Alden’s mentorship and philanthropic support, she now sews beautiful skirts (for sale at the event!). She trains other single mothers to sew, to budget and provide for their family and even market the skirts here in Richmond. What fascinated me about this story is research shows that one woman’s poverty affects as many as 10 generations. Someone once warned that we can’t water the whole world with our personal watering can, but we can do a great job in our own garden. Alden has chosen her garden and is watering it well and has the proof that we can change the world one woman at a time.

Sarah Mullens, of UnBoundRVA, shared one of her favorite success stories. Rahim Watson, of Watson’s Windows and Exteriors, has exceeded all projections in his business. He has several corporate contracts for window washing and in three months will have doubled his income since starting his company last year with the help of UnBound. If he continues at this rate, in nine months he will be the first person in his family to live without government assistance.

I learned a great deal about incredible programs we have here in Richmond at The Big Learn. If you weren’t able to make it, we hope to see you next year!

-Kim Warnick, Impact 100 Richmond Events Co-chair

Kim Warnick

The Ripple Effect: How Winning Impact 100 Opens Multiple Doors

When you walk into a room, you receive subtle, subconscious cues based on the room’s appearance. For example, if you walked into a room with a long conference table, uniform chairs all around, a pitcher of water and some bagels placed around the conference call speakers in the center of the table, you could safely assume this is a place where business gets done. It’s designed to accommodate a large group of people physically and even more virtually. You can imagine board meetings, discussions about investment portfolios, and firm handshakes all around.

Now imagine the chairs are mismatched, there’s a well-worn sofa showing many years of “plopping down,” random donated artwork and framed certificates decorate the walls, and a once-loved (really loved) carpet is trying to pull it all together. You could be in a meeting room at any of Richmond’s local nonprofits.

For many of us, it is not uncommon to have a few items of furniture in our office held together by some expertly placed duct tape and a prayer. Most spaces are furnished with donated items, lovingly liberated from church basements or the attics and garages of our donors. Personally, I went on a Craigslist tear to outfit my entire office for under $200. I even got crafty with an existing chair- which for me involved a can of bright red spray paint and less than a yard of fabric. But I got my pop of color for around $20.

The YWCA budget does not have room for office furniture. Our supplies line-item is meant for paper, ink, folders, and envelopes. Craigslist came out of my own pocket and I was happy for the thrill of the hunt.

I’d like to think my office sends its own message. Framed Elvis pictures, artificial Ficus trees, and some inspirational artwork created by my sister sets the tone. I’m organized, there to work, can fit four comfortably around the Ikea kitchen table I bought off a moving grad student, but I also want people to feel relaxed and settle in for the business of changing lives. My red chair is everyone’s favorite.

But some meetings at the YWCA are tough. We’ve been empowering women since 1887 and that includes work serving survivors of domestic and sexual violence since the late 1970s. Many first-time visitors to our 100-year old building are entering as the first step on their path to trauma recovery. They are looking for a place to begin, to start healing from the physical and emotional pain of the ultimate betrayal—abuse at the hands of a loved one or someone they cared for and trusted.

And we are here for them. Our doors are open. Counseling, case management, emergency, and long-term supportive housing are available free of charge to more than 350 survivors each year. But it all has to start somewhere. For some, that starting point is counseling and the “where” is in the group counseling room of the YWCA.

A year ago, this room looked a bit like the rooms described above–two large couches, mismatched chairs, a few end tables, a donated lamp. The walls were light blue and showing the wear and tear of years of group counseling sessions–chairs moved around, furniture configured into a comfortable circle, the coffee table dragged back and forth across the industrial grey carpet… but something amazing has happened to that room.

In 2013, the YWCA won the Impact 100 grant to transform our emergency housing program. The grant enabled us to initiate a path-breaking partnership with the Richmond Better Housing Coalition (BHC). Since June of that year, women and their dependent children in imminent danger due to intimate partner violence are offered private shelter in a BHC apartment. We also offer longer-term supportive housing in partnership with BHC. Our goal is to provide a safe and private place to heal and make plans for a new life. Ultimately, we want our clients to become sustainable heads of household in violence-free homes. Impact 100 helped us accomplish this using private rather than communal shelter. The difference has been remarkable and successful client outcomes have exceeded our expectations.

But that’s not all that happened that fateful night in May of 2013.

An Impact 100 member had an idea. And that idea sparked a ripple effect that led to the YWCA’s largest in-kind gift in organizational history.

A woman in the audience the night of the Big Give called the YWCA in the months after the grant award. She was in the process of decorating a new home using the design services of Kat Liebschwager. Kat and Mike Liebschwager own Ruth & Ollie in Carytown, a home interior store with the cutest window displays in town (that last bit is my personal opinion, but everyone knows it’s true).

Kat and Mike had become close friends with their new client and at one point mentioned wanting to give back to the community. Because everyone knows Impact 100 members are the savviest donors in Richmond (that’s a proven fact), their client facilitated a meeting with the YWCA.

“I thought maybe they’d re-do a room or paint the lobby,” the member, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “But I should’ve known better. When Kat gets into something, she goes big. She just does.”

Kat and Mike met with YW executive and program leadership and took a tour of the building. When they made it to the third floor group counseling room, Kat stopped. It was a big room, full of potential. But also full of random chairs, a sink (no one could remember its original purpose), a file cabinet, and two large brown faux leather couches. But Kat didn’t see the room for all its humble flaws, she saw what it could be. She became inspired by what happens there. She could feel the healing energy that just needed some of her expert attention to flourish.

She’s a room whisperer. That’s a thing, right? Of course it is!

With the project room identified, Kat and Mike dove deep into our programming to understand the room’s purpose and functionality. They met with our counseling staff and assembled the wish list: the room had to be inviting but big enough to handle large group sessions, it was also used for one-on-one sessions so could it be cozy, too? How about sophisticated and peaceful? Could the sink just go? The artwork must be neutral and calming. We needed a clock but nothing too dominating, just enough so that counselors could keep an eye on the time. And no mirrors.

We were sure we’d given them the impossible: big but intimate. Neutral but peaceful. Calm but inspiring.

The result was astounding. About a month later, Kat came in with a full vision and presentation for the room. She picked a beautiful tan for the walls that complemented a sea-inspired main piece of artwork. She identified furniture that easily moved to accommodate large groups but can also be grouped to facilitate a one-on-one session. The weird sink would make way to a beautiful desk for quiet workspace. The window treatments complemented the pillows which pulled seafoam green from the artwork. And then there was the carpet. New, plush carpet with an animal print pattern that somehow becomes a neutral pulled it all together.

After our resounding applause, we began to wrap our minds around the extent of what was to happen. This room was getting a complete, floor-to-ceiling makeover. And then more wonderful things began to happen.

When Kat’s painting team heard what she was doing, they donated their labor. When the carpet installer found out, he donated his labor. When it was time to hang the drapes, you guessed it, labor donated.

The final result, unveiled in April 2014, is breathtaking. It is by far the single most beautiful space in our building. Finally, something happened to the room instead of just in the room. A room where people come to change their lives now has a décor to reflect the positive intention of the work done within its walls.

I believe that when our clients walk into that room, even if they are focused on the work ahead rather than the furnishings, on some subconscious level, they must feel cared for. A room sets the tone. Kat and her team helped us send the message that our clients are important, and we take this work seriously. We care enough for them to have this beautiful space to come and heal. I like to think it settles a few nerves. It invites people pause and take a deep breath. And it came together out of kindness and generosity that inspired others to do the same.

And it’s all because of Impact 100.

I believe there are more of these stories out there among our five years and six winners. And I know there are more to be written as we endeavor to make this transformational impact again in 2015. Thank you all for being part of our journey and for casting the stone that created this amazing ripple. You are all heroes!

Carol headshot

Carol Anne Lajoie, Chief Development Officer, YWCA of Richmond

Read more about the room in the Richmond Home article.

Before & After

YWCA BeforeYWCA AfterYWCA After

YWCA After

And the winners are…

How many times have we heard an honoree—someone being lauded for her or his philanthropy or volunteerism—declare that she has received far more than she has given? Multiply that emotion by 100, and you can begin to imagine the power of the Impact 100 experience.

Impact 100 (, Richmond’s revolutionary women’s giving circle, is enriching lives in our region both through its grants and through its inclusive and engaged volunteer process. It is no wonder that after just five years, this enterprising group of women could understandably be renamed Impact 200. For its fifth anniversary Big Give awards program this May, Impact 100 raised enough money to give $100,000 each to TWO of its four finalists!

What is so special about the Impact 100 process?  It brings together a diverse group of women who all agree that giving is about more than just writing a check. Researching, learning and engaging with fellow donors becomes a doubly rewarding process. Through Impact 100, each giver chooses how engaged she will become; generally, the greater the giver’s engagement, the more rewarding the giver’s journey. In short, not only the grantees but also the givers reap rewards.

Impact 100 welcomes all women who give $1,000 (some do this in groups of as many as three to get to $1,000).  Members choose whether to volunteer for one of the committees that review grant proposals and meet with the grant applicants. Each committee chooses a finalist to compete for the annual grant. The applications of the finalists are sent electronically for all Impact 100 to review and evaluate for a $100,000 Impact award. Through this engaged process, women become connected to community needs and to each other. Their understanding of community needs deepens, and often their thinking about possible solutions evolves.

At the Big Give in May, everyone gathers to hear the finalists present. Each committee chair advocates for her committee’s finalist, after which it up to the finalists themselves over several minutes to move the Impact 100 voters to choose their nonprofit organization for a $100,000 transformational grant. A great presentation can change minds that had preliminarily been set after reading each finalist’s proposal.

Passion, empathy, enlightenment and sometimes tears flow during the Big Give. After the final presentation has been delivered, each voter uses her “clicker” to rank the finalists 1 through 4. The votes are electronically tabulated and then audited. At the end, with great fanfare the winners are called to the stage to receive their supersized $100,000 checks.

This year’s awardees were Higher Achievement, which inspires educational excellence in Richmond’s elementary and middle schools, and Greater Richmond Arc, which is building an accessible park to enable disabled children to interact with all children. You can learn more about these two nonprofits and these two projects on Give Richmond at and (

The Impact 100 process includes a feedback loop. The Big Give begins with a presentation from last year’s awardee. Carol Anne Lejoie of the YWCA led off this year’s program by sharing powerful stories about some of the women and families who benefited from the YWCA’s enhanced services as a result of last year’s $100,000 grant. She told us that far more domestic violence and abuse clients (32 over the first 3 months) were moved immediately into private housing (as opposed to shelters).

In fact, the need for the YWCA’s new service proved so great that the their staffing became strained. Amazingly, an anonymous Impact 100 member responded with two grants made through her donor advised fund at The Community Foundation, enabling the hiring of an additional case worker and creating a $300,000 endowment to ensure the program’s continuation.  This story and those of prior past returning winners have been electric, leaving everyone emotionally charged to choose wisely again this year.

I want to extend congratulations to Talley Baratka, who spearheaded Richmond’s unique approach to the Impact 100 model, taking the most salient features of other existing models and making it our own. Talley attracted a handful of early followers, and together they created a movement that has doubled in size and impact in only five years. Leah Freamouw now takes the reins. Leah and her team will further evolve this super successful venture that engages givers with nonprofits that serve in exemplary ways.


Bobby Thalhimer 

Bobby joined The Community Foundation staff in 1999, after having been a board member from 1981 to 1991. As Senior Vice President of Philanthropic Services & Donor Engagement, he has responsibilities in donor services, outreach and affiliate operations.

Bobby serves on the boards of Impact Makers and the Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, where he chairs the Investment Committee. He was formerly President of the Science Museum of Virginia Foundation, where he served as executive director from 1992 to 1998, and he was President of the William B. Thalhimer, Jr. & Family Foundation, which is now a component fund of The Community Foundation.

Bobby earned a B.S. in Economics from Williams College and an MBA from the University of Richmond.