A Constant Presence

In Virginia, alumni plant the seeds for strong community partnership

DAE Richmond
It's a mid-April morning in Highland Park, a neighborhood just north of Richmond, Virginia, where historic Queen Anne-style homes the color of popsicles give way to boarded-up buildings along a narrow Main Street.

A short walk from the city's center, a group of neighbors and Duke alumni are gathered in the community's garden. They're here for Duke Alums Engage, an annual event that provides opportunities for alumni to join with local organizations on community-service projects. This year, sixty Duke alumni groups throughout the U.S., England, and Singapore organized DAE events during April and May, addressing topics such as health, education, and access to resources.

In Highland Park, Duke alumni returned for a third year to work in the garden, which is run by the community-development organization Boaz & Ruth. Founded by Martha Franck Rollins ’65, MAT’68 to aid former inmates in finding employment, the organization has built and maintained a small commercial corridor in Highland Park that has created hundreds of jobs. The group's task before the sun breaks into its full afternoon shine: weed and replant the garden, which is open to anyone for the picking.

Raymond, a Highland Park resident, leans over the garden's white picket fence as the group tugs at what's left of last season's harvest, and tells a story about a woman in Highland Park who talks to her plants every morning. Some people might pause when they hear her, he says, but plants, they demand attention.

"You’ve got to tend to them, and keep the weeds out," Raymond says. "And then you can see the beauty of it."

It's a fitting metaphor for the Richmond project. For the alumni in the group who have returned to the garden each year, there is a reward for their efforts. And it's not just in the plants.

"I think it's meaningful to have a place to come back year after year," Abby Williford Kocher ’00, MDiv’06 says, "to share stories and relationships."

Those stories sprout as residents and alumni nudge tomato plants and basil into place. Roland, another Highland Park resident who was hired as the garden's manager through Boaz & Ruth's transitional job program, tells the group he once was incarcerated. The experience of working in the Highland Park community through Boaz & Ruth has changed him, he says.

"Prior to incarceration, I wasn't really driven to community involvement," Roland tells the group. "But with Boaz & Ruth, it's all about community, and it's all about engaging other people. And I've found a love for it."

Many former inmates aren't so fortunate. Between 60 and 75 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals do not have jobs a year after their release, according to the National Institute for Justice. Boaz & Ruth established itself in the center of six of the seven Richmond blocks with the highest number of former inmates and launched a life skills program and businesses, including a café and catering company, a moving company, a thrift store and a construction company that provide transitional jobs.

Robin ten Kate MBA'03 finds stories such as Roland's moving. He recalls a Highland Park resident he met last year who became an entrepreneur and launched a sheetrock business through Boaz & Ruth.

"I found that really inspiring -- someone who went through this program started his own business and now is successful," he says.

As early afternoon approaches and speckled shade begins to cover the freshly-planted garden patch, Roland and Duke alumni gather in a circle to reflect on the day's work. Ten Kate thanks Roland for his leadership, and urges the group to come again. It's important to come back, he says, to show they care about the community -- and that doesn't mean waiting until next year.

"With DAE we're not encouraging a one-time thing," he says to the group before they walk down the street for lunch with Roland at Boaz & Ruth’s Firehouse Cafe. "We can do this more than once a year."