A Constant Presence

In Virginia, alumni plant the seeds for strong community partnership

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 slight 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, M.A.T. ’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. (Rollins and her husband, O. Randolph Rollins ’65, J.D. ’68, were profiled for their work in the November-December 2012 issue of Duke Magazine.)

The group’s task before the sun breaks into its full afternoon shine: weed and replant the garden.

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, M.Div. ’06 says, “to share stories and relationships.”

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.

“Prior to incarceration, I wasn’t really driven to community involvement,” Roland says. “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 lifeskills program and businesses that provide transitional jobs, including a cafe and catering company, a moving company, a thrift store, and a construction company that provide transitional jobs.

Robin ten Kate M.B.A.’03 finds stories like Roland’s moving.

As early afternoon approaches and speckled shade begins to cover the freshly planted garden patch, 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 volunteers before they walk down the street for lunch with Roland at Boaz & Ruth’s Firehouse Café. “We can do this more than once a year."

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