A Not So Brief History of the NRC
“The Early Years”
The existence of a neighborhood resource center in Greater Fulton is the result of hundreds of neighborhood and non-neighborhood volunteers coming together to create a place that through its programs will help break the cycle of low-educational attainment and poverty in the community.
With no school, library, adult education or health center to serve Greater Fulton’s 4,600 residents, concerned citizens developed a culture of organizing associations to advocate for their needs. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the Greater Fulton Hill Civic Association did everything it could to keep the community from slipping into urban decline. But in the mid-90’s crack cocaine turned street corners into open-air drug markets. Automatic weapon fire became as common a sound as the jingle of an ice-cream truck.
It was at that point that NRC Founder, Mary Lou Decossaux got involved in neighborhood organizing. Mary Lou had just finished renovating an old house in Greater Fulton when the shooting started. With the guidance of police officer John Henry Taylor she organized a neighborhood watch group that documented the drug trade and motivated city, county, and federal law enforcement to do their job. Two years later, a dozen dealers were arrested, many of them charged with homicides. Mary Lou continued to work on community change initiatives. She helped start the Fulton Hill Community Business Association and led a six-year initiative to take local convenience store operators to court for ABC Violations. As president of the civic association she worked with city officials to secure monies to plant trees, fabricate a neighborhood sign, and install streetlights in the business corridor. Throughout those organizing years, Greater Fulton associations collaborated on every major initiative. Relationships throughout the community deepened. Trust, love, and a united front were the tools Greater Fulton people used to get things done.
More needed to be done. Neighborhood kids were dropping out of middle and high school. With one in two adults working without the benefit of a high school diploma or GED and 40% of Greater Fulton families living on less than $15,000/year, it was clear, education was the answer. But how, where? School board and city officials dismissed repeated attempts by community leaders requesting that a school be built in Fulton. And then in 2001, the neighborhood post office closed. Suddenly, a 4,000 sq. ft. building sat empty in the heart of the community. Mary Lou saw what it could be. At the time she was coordinating a city-wide living wage campaign and working full-time as community development director at the Wm. Byrd Community House. She tried to ignore the vision. A year later, city-workers got their living wage. Mary Lou quit her paying job, got the key to the old post office and called a bunch of neighbors. They walked through the building imagining the incredible resource it could be. Mary Lou presented the idea of an educational and cultural resource center for people of all ages to the community’s associations. Everyone embraced the idea.
Mary Lou recruited a board: Stacia Childers, Lora Toothman, and Kimmy Certa. In March 2002, with a set of By-Laws (requiring 51% of its board to be from the neighborhood), a Statement of Principles, and an overall vision for the center, the “Neighborhood Resource Center” was incorporated. The board used a $5,000 national leadership award Mary Lou received from the Ford Foundation to apply for non-profit status, open a bank account, get a computer, set up a database, and start raising money.
Joyce Monroe (who has been operating a beauty shop in Fulton Hill for 30 years) joined the board. Long-time Fulton residents Carrie Lewis and Rose Pollard followed. Charlie Schmidt, a student intern who worked with Mary Lou on the living wage campaign also joined the board. Board meetings moved to the beauty shop. Fundraising was the topic of every meeting. With the help of neighbors, community association members, friends, and family, the NRC’s first board of directors organized a series of “buy the building” fundraisers. Between events, Mary Lou wrote grants.
Not knowing how long it would take to raise the money they needed, the board decided to rent a storefront and start a program. A twenty by eleven foot rectangle with a window at 1624 Williamsburg Road became NRC headquarters. The “center” consisted of a dozen folding chairs, a long table, a desk, computer and phone. Marketing for the center consisted of a laminated “NRC” sign in the window and a sandwich board advertising, “Free GED Classes” on the sidewalk. In 2003 a teacher from the Adult Career Development Center (the NRC’s first program partner) taught nine GED students elbow to elbow around the long table while Mary Lou and Charlie quietly figured out how to set up a donated copy of Quick Books on the center’s only computer.
While the board was busy organizing Hair Shows, Baby Contests, Art Auctions, Yard Sales, and Walks, a local church put a bid on the post office. Demoralized, but determined, NRC board members shifted focus. They found a piece of land big enough to build on or install a Quonset hut. As fate would have it, someone outbid the NRC for the land.
Meanwhile, the church that wanted to buy the post office went to their closing without the required number of dollars to make the purchase. The owner of the post office (Sherman from Lotsey and Hardy) called the NRC to say the building was still available if we wanted it. Our dollars were lined up: $50,000 from the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, $25,000 from the Cabell Foundation, $50,000 from an individual donor, and $15,000 from special events for a total of $140,000.
We were starting to feel pretty good, but then, two weeks before the closing, our ($50,000) individual donor pulled out. Other funders threatened to follow suit. The NRC asked the Fulton Hill Community Business Association if they would allocate (city held) Fulton economic development funds to help the NRC purchase the building. Without hesitation, the association drafted a request. The city initially approved the transfer but mysteriously reneged several days before the closing.
The NRC board was heart-broken and exhausted. They talked about returning the grants, keeping the tiny office/classroom next to the beauty shop and starting over. Mary Lou went home to feed her dogs and call the closing attorney with the news. While she was on the phone, a messenger came through the gate with an anonymous check for $50,000. The NRC Board purchased the post office at 1519 Williamsburg Road the next day. That was February 2004. Mary Lou resigned as NRC Board President and became the center’s Executive Director.
The 1958 post office needed work. Mary Lou developed renovation plans with technical help from neighborhood architect Kim Sharp and from Chris Fultz at SMBW Architects. Strong relationships with local unions (formed during Mary Lou’s years coordinating the Richmond Coalition for a Living Wage) were called into play. Under the umbrella of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters, Carpenter’s Local 388 showed up with brothers from all the trades. Working with core neighborhood volunteers, Richmond’s building trade unions (led by Bob Corby) took down the old walls and framed the center’s new rooms. Board members and stalwart volunteers were always on hand to help. Norm Roscher hung the drywall and Wes Mallory wired the center for free.
Those were unbelievable days. Whenever we were in a pickle, Mary Lou would thumb through her list of contacts and eventually the person who could deliver the service or thing we needed would walk through the door.
The Neighborhood Resource Center opened to the public in January 2005.
Programs then and now were based on community interest and resources. Core programs in the early days included: GED, art, theatre, the young writer’s studio, Girl Scouts, Tae Kwon Do, Storytime, and dance.
Parents were happy for their school age kids, but they wanted/needed an affordable preschool option for their three- and four-year olds. At the time, construction on the center’s kitchen/café was underway; the front room was a library, the main room was a multi-purpose space, the computer lab/GED classroom was off limits…Where would we put a preschool?
At the urging of a neighborhood Montessori teacher-in- training, Mary Lou visited a Montessori preschool in the West End. When she saw the self-directed, hands on nature of the curriculum, she approached the board seeking approval to add a sliding-scale Montessori Preschool to the NRC’s program menu. The board agreed. Mary Lou wrote grants to fund the school. It was spring 2006, dozens of volunteers from Richmond area Montessori schools cleared out the former library, brought in kid-size shelves and started outfitting the classroom with authentic Montessori materials. Anita Pishko, Castle O’Neill and Mary Lou spent their evenings sifting through hundreds of pages of policy and procedure manuals to meet Richmond Social Service and American Montessori Society criteria. The NRC could not have opened a fully licensed Montessori preschool in three months without Anita and Castle’s colossal efforts. In 2007, to better meet the needs of students and working parents (with grants from the Robins Foundation and the City of Richmond) the preschool expanded to a full-day. The center created two full-time and two part-time positions to run the school.
Like the preschool, the recording studio came about as a result of community interest. During renovations (before the NRC was actually open), Fulton neighbor Fred McGann brought a handful of teens to the center. They were looking for a place to pursue their interest in recording rap songs. At the time, what is now the recording studio was a locker room. Fred and the boys started showing up with a four-track cassette recorder, microphone and keyboard. They’d come in, say hello and disappear into the locker room. Through the shrill of power drills and thump of hammers, they made music. It wasn’t long before the boys started dreaming about how the locker room could be converted into a real studio… As fate would have it, VCU Professor Kevin Allison called Mary Lou to tell her about an $8,000 police grant. She spent the day talking to Fred about sound-proof doors, vocal booths, headphones and hardware and submitted the grant the next day. She later wrote a grant to the Memorial Foundation for Children to hire someone to run what would become the “young writers’ studio” program. When the sound proof door arrived, Millwright, Ben Hebner and neighborhood carpenter Eric Kunze showed up to cut a new doorway into the men’s room. Danny Finney used the cinder blocks from the newly cut doorway to close the locker room entrance to the men’s room. Bob, Ben, and others hung the doors. For all this to happen, toilets and sinks in the men’s room had to be removed…all of this happened.
With one staff, a hard working board and a budget of $11,000 the center grew into an organization that (in 2012) employs fifteen staff members and has a budget of $450,000.
(…Dozens of stories remain to be told by board members, staff, volunteers, and participants…Start writing them down and posting them on our website! Just click on the “comments” button.)