VCU volunteers help critically ill children from developing countries feel welcome in Richmond

Betty Balanos (left) and VCU Spanish professor Anita Nadal read a picture book to Ana Sophia Balanos, 2, who has been undergoing craniofacial surgeries at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU and who was brought to Richmond by the World Pediatric Project. (Brian McNeill)

Ana Sophia Balanos, a 2-year-old from Belize, has undergone three major craniofacial surgeries at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU since she was brought to Richmond earlier this summer by the World Pediatric Project. She has one more surgery to go, but she is giggling and excited as she receives a visit from Spanish professor Anita Nadal (B.A.’05/H&S; Cert.’07/H&S) and her Virginia Commonwealth University students.

“¡Hola, princesa!” Nadal says, as she gives Ana Sophia a picture book as a present. “We’re here to spoil la princesa. Es muy importante.”

Nadal, a professor in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and students taking her class on understanding language and Latin American cultures this summer have been volunteering with the World Pediatric Project, which brings critically ill children from developing countries to the United States for medical care.

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Center for Sport Leadership to lead delegation of Richmond youth soccer players and coaches to promote sports and social change in Kazakhstan

The Richmond youth soccer players will take part in the sports diplomacy delegation to Kazakhstan.

The Center for Sport Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University will lead a delegation of local soccer coaches and youth soccer players to Kazakhstan this summer for a program aimed at ways sports can create social change.

The program, called ENVEST (Empowering New Voices through Education and Sport Training) is funded by a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs through its Sports Diplomacy Division.

The Richmond-based delegation will travel to Astana, Kazakhstan from Aug. 7-13 where they will meet with coaches and players from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The visit will coincide with the World Expo taking place in Astana this summer.

ENVEST will operate under the leadership of Center for Sport Leadership Executive Director Carrie LeCrom, Ph.D., who has been awarded three previous grants from the U.S. Department of State and has partnered with them to lead sport-for-development missions in Ethiopia, China and South Africa.

“We are grateful to be working with U.S. Department of State again to provide impactful sport for development programming,” LeCrom said. “The trip to Kazakhstan is unique because it is the first time youth will be part of our delegation.”

The youth players and coaches will participate in programming designed to promote cultural understanding. Groups from all countries will create action plans using soccer as a vehicle to address social issues effecting their communities.

The Center for Sport Leadership, which is part of the VCU School of Education, is partnering with the Richmond Strikers Soccer Club and the Football Federation of Kazakhstan. Following the U.S. delegation’s visit this summer, a delegation from Kazakhstan and other participating countries will visit the United States in early 2018.

“By incorporating strategic partners in a productive way, ENVEST has the potential to not only be impactful to those involved, but to have a ripple effect, reaching so many others as well,” LeCrom said.

Organization co-founded by VCU student teaching chess, patience to Richmond youth

Legacy Chess Academy serves youth in Richmond and is aiming to serve more schools and organizations in the surrounding region.

In a Henderson Middle School classroom, dozens of Richmond children between the ages of 12 and 14 are paired off, each huddled over chess boards and playing intensely.

“Chess helps me think,” says Avery White, 12, a student at Falling Creek Middle School. “It’s a very patient game. It helps you think a few steps forward because if you make a wrong move, your opponent can get an advantage on you.”

The students were participating in a chess program run by Legacy Chess Academy — an organization co-founded by Virginia Commonwealth University senior Corey Hancock — and offered as part of the Richmond Police Athletic League’s summer program for Richmond youth.

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Two VCU alumnae to serve in Peace Corps

Erica Ingram, at left, and Erin Geraghty.

Two Virginia Commonwealth University alumnae will share their knowledge of the English language during stints serving abroad in the Peace Corps.

Erin Geraghty (B.A.’16/H&S) leaves later this month to serve as an English teacher in Madagascar, while Erica Ingram (B.A.’15/H&S) will serve as an English teaching assistant in China.

Geraghty, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English from VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences in 2016, will begin with a three-month home stay in order to focus on language and culture. She sought “the opportunity to break out of the box and see how the rest of the world lives,” she said.

After the home stay, Geraghty will begin a two-year stint teaching middle and high school English and assisting with local teachers’ professional development, according to the Peace Corps.

“I hope to give my community the tools with which to think deeply and effectively and to instill within them a larger commitment to better themselves, their communities and the world around them,” Geraghty said in a statement. “I’m most excited to meet my fellow volunteers, my students and to go exploring around the island.”

Ingram, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 2015, will teach spoken and written English at the post-secondary level.

“I have always wanted to visit China and learn about the people and the culture,” Ingram said in a statement. “I attended an event where I met several returned volunteers who spoke of their experience and how rewarding it was for them.”

Ingram participated in VCU Globe and the Peace Corps Prep Program as a student. The program was launched in 2014 and currently enrolls 250 students, said Jill E. Blondin, Ph.D., director of VCU Globe. Two other prep program alumni are currently serving in the Peace Corps.

Ingram will live for three months with a host family, studying the language and culture, before serving two years in her teaching role.

“I want to become more organized so that this experience can help further my ultimate goal of becoming a professional ESL instructor,” Ingram said.

According to the Peace Corps, there are more than 328 Virginians currently serving around the world. The corps was founded in 1961, while the China and Madagascar programs began in 1993.

VCU’s commitment to LGBTQ+ students recognized

Ted Lewis, executive director, Side by Side; Rosalyn Hobson Hargraves, associate vice president, Division for Inclusive Excellence; and Michael Thorne-Begland, board chair, Side by Side. (Photo by Jeffrey Ocampo)

Virginia Commonwealth University was honored recently with the 2017 Catalyst Award by Side by Side, an organization dedicated to creating supportive communities where Virginia’s LGBTQ+ youth can define themselves, belong and flourish.

Side by Side specifically cited efforts such as VCU’s Lavender House, an inclusive living-learning community for first-year LGBTQ+ students, and the Lavender Empowerment Summit, a weekend forum aimed at empowering LGBTQ+ students to pursue individual and community leadership roles. Side by Side also noted efforts spanning student affairs, athletics, courses offered in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies and Safe Zone workshops.

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Community members, VCU reflect on tradition of community-university partnerships

Representatives of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League honor Catherine Howard, Ph.D., vice provost for community engagement at VCU, (center) for her work on the Carver-VCU Partnership. Tito Luna, neighborhood outreach director at VCU, is at far left. Barbara Abernathy, a key figure in the founding of the partnership, is third from right.
Photos by Steven Casanova.

In 1996, Barbara Abernathy, president of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League, felt a creeping concern about Virginia Commonwealth University’s potential expansion into the Carver neighborhood on the north side of Broad Street, particularly in light of the pending construction of the Siegel Center. She arranged an appointment with then-VCU President Eugene Trani, Ph.D., to discuss those nagging worries and invited along her City Council representative, Tim Kaine, the future governor and U.S. senator.

The meeting proved highly productive with an open and candid exchange and marked the beginning of something new and vital between the neighborhood and university. From that appointment forward, a close collaboration developed between Carver and VCU that still thrives today. For more than two decades, the Carver-VCU Partnership has worked to create a shared urban community with a commitment to improving the neighborhood’s quality of life, while providing learning opportunities for students.

At the 10th anniversary celebration of VCU’s Division of Community Engagement on Wednesday, held at Cabell Library, Kaine reflected via a recorded video message on that partnership and VCU’s other community-minded contributions to the Richmond area. He called the university “a wonderful academic institution” that was also a “vibrant heart” of the city.

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Lobs & Lessons celebrates 8th year of Young Aces QuickStart Tennis Tournament

More than 200 fourth and fifth graders from Richmond will showcase their QuickStart tennis skills April 27 at the eighth annual Young Aces Open at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Mary and Frances Youth Center.

The Young Aces Open will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is organized by VCU’s Lobs & Lessons program. Entrance to the event is at 120 S. Linden St., between the Cary Street Gym and Cary Street Field. The rain location will be at the Richmond Volleyball Club.

“One day leads to a year, which creates a lifetime memory. This is what we hope to inspire through Young Aces Open and the Lobs & Lessons program,” said Tina Carter, director of the VCU Mary and Frances Youth Center. “Tennis can help create opportunities for youth throughout their lives, whether they play for fun, to stay healthy or it becomes part of their educational path.”

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Richmond youth who have faced homelessness and housing instability use research and advocacy to help others in similar situations

Advocates for Richmond Youth members Tiffany Haynes (left), and Elaine Williams, a senior social work major at VCU.

Dmitri Blair, a 16-year-old junior at Richmond’s Armstrong High School, began experiencing homelessness and housing instability the summer before he entered the fifth grade when he, his mother, sister, brother and stepfather found themselves living in a local shelter.

“I think I was 11 at the time,” Blair said. “Then I was in a hotel for most of middle school and beginning of high school. Just recently, we’re getting housing and it’s starting to get a little better.”

As a young person dealing with uncertainty over housing, Blair said it was difficult to understand how to navigate the social services system and how to find, ask for, or even be aware of, resources that might be available to help.

Now, Blair — along with a group of other Richmond young people who have dealt with homelessness and unstable housing called the Advocates for Richmond Youth — is working to improve the support of young people in similar situations.

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Natural Wonders

The James River’s humble rock pools take center stage for a new project that blends research, coursework and community outreach

Open High School students fanned across the undulating rocks on the James River near the south end of Belle Isle, peering into a series of small circular pools that had formed over thousands of years and now pockmarked the exposed granite bedrock surface. On first glance, the pools looked no different from one another. However, as the students rotated from pool to pool, they learned from the day’s instructors, a collection of senior biology students from Virginia Commonwealth University, about the subtle but significant distinctions between the tiny ecosystems and the conditions that had created them.

One group of students marveled at the trails that snails had etched across the muddy bottom of a pool. Then they moved to an adjacent pool to study hydrilla, the invasive plant species that had flourished there. Nearby, VCU student-instructors explained the insect life that had taken hold in two small pools, including one where mosquitoes thrived precisely because the setting was so inhospitable for any other form of life — including predators. Students near shore received a close-up examination of the leaves and branches of multiple species of trees, learning the nuances that separated one piece of plant life from another and how leaf litter falling into pools near the forest edge could form the base of the food web.

The overall effect on the teenagers was one of a gentle nudging awake. Here, these simple rock pools were serving as a real-life lab where many of the scientific principles they studied in class were playing out in compelling fashion. For most of the students, the small pools and their inhabitants would never have attracted more than a casual glance. Now, as their instructors brought each insect or plant into sharp relief, the lifeless came alive. The pools transformed into portals to unique worlds inhabited by remarkable creatures, all in an urban setting within a short walk of their school and in sight of the whining weekday traffic above them on the Lee Bridge.

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VCU announces month of thought-provoking events to celebrate Black History Month

Angela Davis.
Photo by Nick Wiebe

Iconic activist, writer and educator Angela Davis, National Book Award-winning author Colson Whitehead and rapper and Public Enemy member Professor Griff will visit Virginia Commonwealth University in February as part of the university’s celebration of Black History Month.

The month’s events will also feature discussion panels, arts and cultural events, and public lectures, all designed to spark thought and conversation related to the history of the black experience in the United States.

“It is my hope that everyone can find a program or event that excites them and moves them to learn and engage others around their unique perspectives and ideas,” said Yolanda Avent, director of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs in the Division of Students Affairs at VCU. “Black History Month is a time to celebrate, educate and inspire the community and to acknowledge the rich history of African-Americans’ contributions to society.”

All of the events will be free and open to the public, unless otherwise noted.

Davis, who has been an activist on behalf of women’s rights, racial justice, prisoners’ rights and more since the 1960s, will deliver a lecture Feb. 24 in the Commonwealth Ballroom of University Student Commons. She will address the current racial, political and economic climate, in addition to her own perspective as an activist and scholar. Davis’ talk is open only to VCU students, faculty and staff. To register, email omsa@vcu.edu or call 828-6672.

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