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FRIENDS Association for Children Celebrates 150 Years

One of the oldest nonprofits in the nation, Richmond’s FRIENDS Association for Children is celebrating its 150th year in operation. It all began in 1871 with the dream of one brave woman named Lucy Goode Brooks. Born into slavery in 1818, Brooks suffered a number of tragedies before the Civil War: her family was broken up, and she and her husband lost their eldest daughter.

After the Civil War ended, countless children came to Richmond seeking family that had been sold at slave auctions only to discover they had no family left. Brooks believed the community had to provide for these orphaned children one way or another. She visited six churches in the area and the local Quaker Society of Friends and asked them to help her build an orphanage for children who had lost parents in the war or to slavery. The group of Christian leaders and Brooks petitioned the City of Richmond for land and were granted property in Jackson Ward. For more than a generation, the Friends Asylum for Colored Orphans operated in the neighborhood providing adoption and foster care services, with the goal of placing children in caring homes.

Once the Commonwealth took over these services, FRIENDS evolved into an education provider. The FRIENDS Association for Children is still housed in its original Jackson Ward location and has grown to include a center in Church Hill. Early childhood education has been its main role in the community for nearly eight decades now.

FRIENDS follows the ‘Creative Curriculum’ that other providers and funders have adopted. The comprehensive lessons and observation-based scoring allow instructors to report back to parents on areas where the children are excelling and where they may need improvement. FRIENDS works with children from six weeks old up to age 12. Its programs run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week, providing care and enrichment to kids while allowing their parents to go to work without having to worry about childcare.

“The ability of FRIENDS to change its course is one of my favorite things about this organization,” Executive Director David Young said. “I’ve worked with nonprofits all my life – large ones, small ones, national ones, local ones – and sometimes one the hardest thing for a nonprofit to do is to shift its focus and programs. However, with the support of the community, funders and the families we serve, we were able to do that when we transitioned from an orphanage to adoption services, and again to early childhood education. We went from supporting Richmond’s children, to putting families back together, to educating kids and supporting parents.”

FRIENDS was able to transition so easily because it never strayed too far from Brooks’ ideals. Early childhood education was extremely important to Brooks. Growing up as an enslaved child with very limited reading and writing skills, she taught herself by eavesdropping on her master’s children as they received their literacy lessons. Armed with this knowledge, she taught her children to read and write, understanding that education was the key to unlocking a brighter future.

Today, two of Brooks’ great-grandchildren are extremely accomplished: Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham is a professor of History and African American studies at Harvard University and served as chair of the Department of African and African American Studies from 2006-13; and Elmer T. Brooks was a Retired Air Force Brigadier General.

Young shares a deep appreciation for education and believes that there should be community partners willing and able to provide it. He grew up in a single-parent home, where he and his six siblings were raised by their mother and grandmother. His mother understood that “there are some things that mothers and grandmothers can’t impart upon sons and grandsons. So, they found resources in the community that provided mentors – whether it was after-school tutoring, sports or community service.” He hopes FRIENDS can be that type of resource for the Richmond community.

“I would love for FRIENDS to be a place that people can come for help,” Young said. “If we don’t have the resource someone needs, then we work to assist them by providing key information and referral to other community providers.”

FRIENDS is celebrating its sesquicentennial by hosting four events designed to give back to the community that has supported it through the years.

“No organization can last 150 years unless they have the support and commitment of the local business and philanthropic community, and the belief of people they’re serving,” Young said. “That’s what has kept us around so long. So, we wanted to do some things to say thank you and acknowledge that this is why we’re still here.”

The first event was a celebration held in March featuring comedy, music and history. In attendance were the six churches that helped establish FRIENDS all those decades ago. The night was headlined by an alumna of FRIENDS comprehensive music education and performing arts program. She performed “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler on the violin.

In June, FRIENDS hosted its second event, a reunion when the organization reconnected with teachers, funders, former children and parents. It celebrated the milestone in Abner Clay Park with music, bounce houses, yoga, healthy cooking demonstrations and more.

Their third event is focused on community service and volunteerism. The past two years COVID has separated nonprofits from their vast networks of volunteers, causing them to spend more money on employees, materials and programs. With that in mind, FRIENDS connected corporate volunteers with several different children and family-focused agencies or nonprofits around the community that needed assistance.

“This is not about FRIENDS, it’s about getting volunteers back out into the community doing the amazing work they were doing before the pandemic,” Young said.

The final event will be a fundraising gala for the future of FRIENDS, held in November. It will be held at the Main Street Station in downtown Richmond. Young hopes to generate funds for current reserves and for their endowment, so that FRIENDS can last another 50, 100 or 150 years.

Young said there are many things people can do to support FRIENDS in the coming years. “The first thing that comes to mind are resources, volunteers and funding,” he said. “But in a deeper sense, a willingness to work together and share is important. Collaboration will yield greater impact across this and every community”.

As an example, Young shared that FRIENDS is about more than just teaching children reading, writing and arithmetic.  “In October each year we arrange for the fire department, police department, ambulance authority and all of the first responders to come and read a book or interact with the children in some way. When these children typically see first responders in action it’s usually during an emergency. The bright lights and sirens can be very scary. This helps our children understand their role as ‘community helpers’ and to be less afraid to interact with them. I want the kids to see that these are our community heroes and they shouldn’t be afraid of them. That can’t be done without these groups willing to share their time and resources with us. We treasure experiences like these and hope to have more.”

To learn more about FRIENDS Association for Children, visit its website or follow the organization on Twitter or Facebook.

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