As they adapt to the community’s changing demographics, local nonprofits wrestle with how much they should shift their focus
By Randy Rieland
For Foothills Forum
For a January night in Rappahannock, it was one festive beach party.
Revelers in Hawaiian shirts and pirate outfits weaved around the tables packed into the old gym of the Washington School House. Some stopped to sample freshly-shucked oysters or a shot of tequila. Others gathered around several tables in the back, waiting for their turn to put in their silent auction bids on a wide range of prizes, from expensive dinners to physical therapy sessions to tree service. Later, there was a spirited live auction, where diners competed for car detailing, shooting instructions and vacations in Florida and Italy.
In the midst of it all sat Montse Vittitow. Since the fall of 2017, she’s been the community coordinator for the Rappahannock Benevolent Fund (RBF), and this was the nonprofit’s big annual fundraiser. Part of the money raised by the ticket sales and auctions will go to pay her salary.
Vittitow’s position is only part-time, yet she plays a central role in a recent shift in the Benevolent Fund’s mission — from what was largely about providing emergency funds to county residents facing a crisis to one aimed at addressing deeper, more complex issues, such as deteriorating housing or persistent poverty.
This is the second of a three-part series of reports.
Part 1 (Feb. 14): Volunteers have become and essential cog in how Rappahannock works. Can the machine keep running?
Part 2 (Feb. 28): As the county’s demographics and economy evolve, nonprofits like Rappahannock Benevolent Fund and the Child Care Learning Center are looking at what that means to their missions and how they can adjust.
Part 3 (March 14): Volunteer burnout is big challenge facing nonprofits. So is finding ways to bridge the community’s cultural gaps. Organizations like the Food Pantry and Lions Club can play a big role.
It’s the type of refocusing with which other nonprofits in Rappahannock also are grappling. They see a foster care crisis where there has been no choice but to place kids with families in other counties. Or, they’re aware of the struggles of a growing number of older folks on fixed incomes trying to hang on in a county where the cost of living keeps rising. These are deepening problems. But they also can bring with them the tangles that come with brushing up against people’s personal lives. And, they can require more money and volunteer time — a shrinking commodity. Ultimately, this raises questions of where do you draw lines, how much can you take on.“It’s not just where do you start,” said Sharon Pierce, president of Rapp at Home, the local nonprofit that helps its members stay in their homes. “It’s also where do you end.”
The Benevolent Fund started simply enough, a direct response to the tribulations of the 2008 recession. Local pastors could use their churches’ “discretionary funds” to help people in desperate straits, but only to limited effect. Longtime Rappahannock resident John Kiser suggested that several of the churches pool their resources. He also offered to kickstart the initiative with a grant from the William and Mary Greve Foundation, a philanthropic fund started by his grandmother and step-grandfather.
“We had groups for the dogs and the cats and the open spaces, but what about the people?” Kiser said. “2008 was rough. It seemed like an obvious thing at the time.”
Initially, three churches — Trinity Episcopal and Washington Baptist in Washington and Reynolds Memorial Baptist Church in Sperryville — were involved, but others later joined. It was, by and large, an informal and reactive form of charity, with pastors responding to requests from struggling county residents. In 2016, however, the RBF officially became a separate nonprofit.
For many who received help, it was a one-time solution, a way to get through a pressing financial crisis, such as an unpaid heating bill or a needed car repair. During a five-year period from 2012 through 2017, the fund made 492 grants totaling $178,821, an average of just more than $360.
But there also were those who came back for help more than once. They strained to stay afloat. So, when Vittitow, who lives in Chester Gap, came aboard, it was largely with the intention of having her follow up on people receiving grants. Were there deeper reasons for their money troubles? Were there changes they could make to help them move away from a financial precipice? Did they have unappreciated assets they hadn’t tapped into?
“What happens when you get to know people, when you’re able to have real conversations with them, is that you find out that their need is not just the utility bill they’re struggling with at the moment,” said the Rev. Miller Hunter, rector of Trinity Episcopal and the RBF’s chair. “They may come back and say, ‘Well, I was embarrassed to mention that we also have this other need.’ Or you sit down with them and look at their budget and you realize there’s no way in the world they’re going to make it.”
Vittitow offered an example of when she’s been able to make a difference. She was working with an older couple who were trying, without much success, to get by on their Social Security checks. But Vittitow saw they had a room they might rent, and then was able to connect them with someone looking for a place.
“I matched them, and it was a wonderful answer to what was going on with this family,” she said. “It helps them cover their costs. Not only that, but they now have a wonderful companion. It was a very satisfying solution.”
Keeping it simple?
Last year, Vittitow’s role shifted a bit. She took on more administrative duties, which means more paperwork, but also that she handles the whole process, including the screening interview with everyone who applies for a grant. That, she said, enables her to get a better handle right away on what’s hanging over families. The change apparently hasn’t slowed her down. In fact, the RBF provided $115,575 through 155 grants, a 53 percent jump from 2017.
It also ventured into new territory, taking on home repairs, including house modifications for aging residents. That initiative, called Safe and Healthy Homes, was launched by volunteer Kees Dutilh, who worked for Rebuilding Together, a national organization, for a number of years. He and the contractors he hired finished 19 projects last year, at a cost of close to $40,000.
There’s little doubt that the program addresses a growing need — the declining condition of old houses in the county. But it raises questions about how far the Benevolent Fund should move beyond its original mission.
Kiser, for one, is wary. “Part of what makes the Benevolent Fund virtuous is its simplicity. And I see us moving away from that,” he said. “I see Safe and Healthy Homes as a worthy thing to do, but I don’t see it as simple.”
Rev. Hunter concedes that the nonprofit is feeling its way through its expanded role. “Deciding what it becomes and where we draw the lines is one of the things we’re wrestling with,” he said. “But we’re absolutely not abandoning our founding vision. We’re as committed as ever to providing emergency support for people here.”
More local residents seeking that support these days are elderly, said Vittitow. She estimates that it’s almost half of those she sees. “These are people on fixed incomes, and they don’t have the resources or abilities they had in their younger years,” she said. “They’re the ones more likely to require mentoring. They’re the ones who are most vulnerable.”
Staying at home
Other local organizations also are taking a close look at how they might adapt to the county’s changing demographics and economics. One is Rapp at Home, the three-year-old nonprofit which not only provides rides and picks up prescriptions for its 144 members, but also schedules a range of speakers and other activities to help them stay connected.
Its board is in the midst of mapping out a five-year strategic plan, and as it has reexamined Rapp at Home’s role, it has become clearer that the needs of the elderly in the county are growing more serious.
“There’s more awareness of the situation where aging folks are sitting on property they’re struggling to maintain,” said Rapp at Home’s Sharon Pierce. “Everybody wants to stay in the county. Everybody hopes they can figure out how to have someone come in and help them. When you start multiplying that by the number of people who are going to need that help…and where are those people helping out going to come from?”
Pierce sees potential in the concept of house-sharing, but isn’t hopeful it will be embraced widely enough to have a meaningful impact. “Both our blessing and our curse,” she said, “is that we have a small population.”
By contrast, the Child Care and Learning Center (CCLC) on Route 211 outside Washington has a long history in the county, long enough to have alumni from multiple generations of families. But it too is assessing whether and how it should transform itself.
Enrollment at the nonprofit operation had been dropping in recent years, in part due to a decline in the number of young children here, in part because of financial and social trends. For instance, more kids now are being watched by their grandparents. This school year CCLC enrollment is actually back to capacity, but that’s because after the county lost its funding for Head Start health, nutrition and family services for eligible pre-kindergarten kids, CCLC set up an alternative program called First Step for those children.
The boost from First Step, however, hasn’t stopped the discussion of how CCLC might reshape its future. In fact, last fall it signed a contract with ChildFocus, a D.C.-based consulting firm, to do an in-depth study of the needs of children and families in the county. The goal was to get a fresh perspective that could help the CCLC board map a way forward.
Some believed the nonprofit should consider offering a program that engaged elderly residents interacting with children. Or that it extend its focus beyond the current range of care for kids up to 12 years. There’s also been a question of how CCLC might become more of a hub for the entire community.
In its report, finished just a few weeks ago, ChildFocus presented community feedback that for now at least, CCLC shouldn’t stray too far from what it’s been doing, that it can be most effective by building on its expertise and experience in how children learn. At the same time, some of those surveyed felt that as it looks to expand its family services, the nonprofit should develop partnerships with groups and churches in the community — which could help minimize any perception that CCLC is “spearheading the effort.”
That reflects the delicate balance nonprofits here must find between fulfilling needs and imposing values, something likely to be part of the discussion when the ChildFocus report is presented in a public meeting on March 15 in the community hall of Reynolds Memorial Baptist Church in Sperryville.
Lisa Paine-Wells will be paying close attention to what’s said that night. She was hired in January as CCLC’s new executive director, and said she is looking forward to helping the nonprofit take a more active role in the community. It began offering parenting classes about a month ago, and in time, could become a place where families in the county come for services hard to find in Rappahannock.
“One of the biggest issues in rural communities is lack of services,” she said. “Lack of mental health services. Lack of primary care physicians. Another issue is that families tend to be more separated so they don’t have the informal support networks they once did.”
Still, Paine-Wells believes that as CCLC begins to look at how it can broaden its orbit, she will have plenty of help.
“The advantage is that there are around 7,000 people in the county, and 6,999 seem to know each other. Everyone seems to know someone who can help you with whatever you’re having a problem with.”
Doer’s Profile: Phil Irwin
Founder of Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) in 1970; Proprietor of Caledonia Farm-1812 B&B in Flint Hill. Trustee, Scenic Virginia. He has lived in Rappahannock since 1960.
The Spark: “The threat of a powerline along the eastern front of the Blue Ridge. I founded the RLEP to stop that project and other environmental threats to the county.”
Proudest Achievement: “RLEP’s influence in shaping local environmental policy, especially in the early development of the county’s Comprehensive Plan. Over the years, RLEP has played a key role in protecting Rappahannock’s rural character.”
Biggest Challenge: “Helping to maintain the county’s ongoing commitment to environmental responsibility and preservation. An essential part of this commitment is viewshed protection.”
Why It Matters: “I want to leave this world a little better than I found it, for my grandchildren to enjoy.”
Favorite Rappahannock Treasure: “Open Space.”
Doer’s Profile: Jean Lillard
A key founder and organizer of the Fodderstack 10K for more than 40 years. Helped establish the Free Clinic. Attended Rappahannock elementary and high schools, and later became a Headwaters student mentor.
The Spark: “I love tennis and I wanted our county to have tennis courts for the enjoyment of all.”
Proudest Achievement: “Organizing the Fodderstack 10K as the primary funding source for the Rappahannock County Recreational Facilities Authority. Funds for the race are dedicated to operation of our county park.”
Biggest Challenge: “Sustaining the park for use by future generations. Things like expanding recreational amenities, outdoor education programs, and other improvements are necessary to keep our community connected to the park.”
Why It Matters: “Families and friends need a place to meet that has outdoor recreational opportunities. Whether it is tennis, basketball, skateboarding, a river walk, or just a cookout, our county park is a place that connects all of us.”
Favorite Rappahannock Treasure: “The kind, generous people who live here combined with the natural, rural beauty of the place — you can’t buy what we have here.”
— Bob Hurley
A Benefactor’s Roster
By Bob Hurley
For Foothills Forum
Giving back comes in many forms in Rappahannock — from the long hours of sweat equity provided by hundreds of volunteers to the financial support of a multitude of individual donors. But nonprofits and local residents also benefit from the generosity of a number of established foundations and donor-advised funds, many with deep community roots.
Here are some of those funds, although it’s not a complete list because some benefactors want to remain anonymous. Typically, the funds below contribute cumulatively between $300,000 and $400,000 each year to organizations or people in Rappahannock. Many are administered by the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation (NPCF).
Pauline H. Bruce Memorial Scholarship Fund
- Established in honor of longtime Rappahannock school teacher Pauline Bruce
- Focuses on educational awards and scholarships to students in Rappahannock for post-secondary education
- Administered by NPCF
Cooley Dearing Rinker Scholarship Fund
- Focuses on providing awards and scholarships to Rappahannock students for post-secondary education
- Administered by NPCF
Robert Darby Youth Scholarship Fund
- Started by former Woodville resident Bob Darby. A Naval Academy graduate, retired engineer and Rappahannock Lions Club member, he now lives in Florida
- Supports training and education grants, including scholarships for mathematics, music, and technical trades
- Managed by NPCF
Bill and Linda Dietel Fund
- Established by Flint Hill residents, Bill and Linda Dietel, who have been consultants to philanthropic organizations, as well as taking on leadership roles in several local nonprofits
- Supports a wide range of Rappahannock organizations, including the Child Care and Learning Center (CCLC), NPCF, Scrabble School, Food Pantry, Foothills Forum, Rappahannock Association of Arts and Community (RAAC)
- Managed by NPCF
William and Mary Greve Foundation
- Established by William and Mary Greve, of Brooklyn, N.Y., but administered by Slate Mills resident and author John Kiser. Mary Greve was his grandmother and William Greve his step-grandfather
- Supports a range of nonprofits, including the Rappahannock Benevolent Fund, CCLC, Food Pantry, Kid Pan Alley and the Rappahannock County Historical Society
The Hampton Fund
- Established by Mrs. P. C. Randolph of Upperville, Va.
- Supports local nonprofits including the Rappahannock Benevolent Fund, Northern Piedmont Community Foundation, RappU and several churches and fire departments
- Administered by Sperryville resident Bill Fletcher, a longtime Rappahannock farmer and lawyer
Jacquemin Family Foundation
- Established by Castleton resident John Jacquemin, a finance entrepreneur who serves on the boards of the Castleton Festival and George Mason University
- Supports Rappahannock nonprofits including Kid Pan Alley, Food Pantry, Headwaters, Castleton Festival, the Benevolent Fund’s Safe and Healthy Homes initiative
- Administered by the Jacquemin family
Krebser Fund for Rappahannock County Conservation
- Established in honor of longtime Rappahannock physician Dr. Werner Krebser of Huntly. A member of the county’s Planning Commission for many years, Dr. Krebser was a committed conservationist
- Provides grants in Rappahannock for conservation easements, stream protection projects and protection of dark skies
- Administered by Piedmont Environmental Council
Lykes Estate Fund
- Established by former Flint Hill residents Richard Lykes, economist and freelance photographer and Buddy Darden, architect
- Supports nonprofits primarily for arts, education and communications, including RAAC, CCLC, RappU, Headwaters and Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP)
- Managed by NPCF
Claudia Mitchell Arts Fund
- Established by RAAC with a bequest from Claudia Mitchell, lighting designer, arts enthusiast, and former member of Washington Town Council
- Provides grants to local artists and organizations supporting the arts
- Administered by Rappahannock Association for the Arts and Community
Red Oak Fund
- Anonymous benefactor.
- Supports Rappahannock nonprofit organizations including CCLC, Food Pantry, Headwaters, Trinity Episcopal Church
- Administered by NPCF
Snead Family Foundation Fund
- New fund established in honor of former Gid Brown Hollow resident, Judge Rayner Snead. Managed by Lois Snead of Washington and her five children
- Focuses on local nonprofits, including the Food Pantry and religious organizations
- Administered by NPCF
Gordon Thornhill Excellence in Youth Foundation
- Established by the Thornhill family in honor of Gordon Thornhill, former resident of Boston and longtime employee and manager of the Rappahannock Co-Op
- Supports youth sports activities, projects, and agriculture enrichment programs, plus the Food Pantry, CCLC, Hearthstone School, Headwaters
- Managed by NPCF
Mary Beth Williams Memorial Scholarship Fund
- Established by Tommy and Bonnie Williams of Flint Hill in honor of their daughter, Mary Beth
- Focuses of scholarships for students who are interested in agriculture and the outdoors.
- Administered by NPCF
The Northern Piedmont Community Foundation (NPCF) is a nonprofit, philanthropic organization that distributes grants in the region. The money comes from its own funds, and also from numerous private foundations it administers. During the past two years, it has channeled more than $160,000 to Rappahannock nonprofits, and last year, it provided more than $20,000 in scholarships to Rappahannock students.
NPCF also coordinates Give Local Piedmont, an annual one-day event during which people can make donations to local nonprofits through the NPCF website. The next Give Local Piedmont day is May 7, although nonprofits wanting to participate need to register on the website by March 15.
While some organizations rely more heavily on their own fundraisers or grants from large private organizations, such as the PATH Foundation in Fauquier County, a wide range of local nonprofits received a total of more than $450,000 through Give Local Piedmont the past two years. Here’s how that total broke down:
Kid Pan Alley: $77,058
Wakefield Country Day School: $60,666
Belle Meade Educational Resources Center: $38,392
Shenandoah National Park Trust: $24,444
Rappahannock Pantry: $21,457
For the Cats Sake: $20,753
Rappahannock Animal Welfare League: $20,240
Sperryville Volunteer Rescue Squad: $16,886
Rapp at Home: $15,099
Headwaters Rappahannock County Public Education Foundation: 12,123
Friends of the Rappahannock County Library: $10,761
The Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community, Inc: $10,590
Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection: $9,965
Child Care and Learning Center: $9,944
Washington Volunteer Fire and Rescue, Inc: $7,899
Rappahannock Benevolent Fund, Inc: $7,682
Rappahannock Legal Services, Inc: $7,629
Rappahannock Historical Society, Inc.: $7,394
Rappahannock Nature Camp: $6,695
RappU, Inc: $6,078
Foothills Forum: $5,826
Hearthstone, The Whole Family Learning Center: $5,772
Rappahannock County High School Band Booster Association: $5,763
Friends of the Rappahannock, Inc.: $4,388
Scrabble School Preservation Foundation, Inc.: $3,449
Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services Board: $3,212
Native Wildlife Rescue, Inc.: $2,617
People for Pets Fund: $2,396
Castleton Festival: $1,932
Rappahannock County Lions Club Foundation: $1,850
Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area: $777
Castleton Community Volunteer Fire Company: $774
Mountain Laurel Montessori School: $751
Living Sky Foundation: $502
Rappahannock Athletic Association: $56
— Randy Rieland