Nonprofit innovators

Organizations find creative ways to solve problems

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Print this page by Donna C. Gregory

Virginia’s nonprofits go far beyond helping the homeless, feeding the hungry or mentoring troubled children.

Innovative programs throughout the state are helping people overcome disabilities, find affordable housing and gain employment.

Here is a sampling of the services of three organizations, Hollins Communications Research Institute in Roanoke, Virginia Community Capital in Richmond and Christiansburg and the Virginia Goodwill Network, which has operations throughout the commonwealth.

Help for stutterers
At just 28 years old, Randy Marcus had accomplished more professionally than many people twice his age. He’d successfully managed Bill Bolling’s 2005 campaign for lieutenant governor and was subsequently appointed Bolling’s chief of staff.

But Marcus felt his lifelong struggle with stuttering was holding him back. He was particularly self-conscious while on the phone or introducing himself in public.

“When I was in one of those big meeting situations where you had to go around the room and introduce yourself, I would make an excuse to get up [and leave the room], so I wouldn’t have to say my name and stutter in front of everyone,” Marcus recalls. “I felt it was limiting what I could do.”

Marcus had been treated by speech therapists off and on since he was in elementary school with mixed success. In 2006, he attended an intensive 12-day therapy program for stuttering at Hollins Communications Research Institute in Roanoke.

HCRI was founded in 1972 by Dr. Ronald Webster and has been recognized for its pioneering work in research and treatment of stuttering. More than 6,000 clients from 48 countries have gone to HCRI for therapy. Previous clients include Fox News broadcaster John Stossel and Annie Glenn, wife of astronaut and Sen. John Glenn.

“People who stutter are often stereotyped by employers and the general public as nervous, disorganized or mentally deficient,” says Webster, HCRI’s president. “Yet, there is no mental or emotional flaw that drives the problem.”
HCRI research has discovered that stuttering is a physically based condition. The institute’s therapy program teaches clients how to control the muscles in the throat, tongue, jaw and lips that cause stuttering and uses technology to monitor their progress.

“I learned to talk all over again,” Marcus says. “It was a completely different way of understanding the challenges stutterers face.”

HCRI is currently developing a “speech microscope,” a tool that measures the fine details of speech sounds while they’re being made. The better diagnostic information will help researchers improve the precision and effectiveness of therapy for stuttering.

HCRI also hopes to introduce its unique treatment methods to a world audience through the Internet. According to the National Institutes of Health, there are 66 million people in the world who stutter, including 3 million in the U.S.

Despite the popularity of “The King’s Speech,” the Academy Award-winning 2010 film about the stuttering problems of British King George VI, a lack of funding has slowed HCRI’s expansion plans.

“We have terrible problems trying to raise funds because no one cares about stuttering,” Webster says. “It’s so misunderstood that foundations, government agencies and philanthropists seem not to have any interest. That’s why I say it’s the invisible problem.”

But for millions of people, like Marcus, stuttering is anything but invisible. HCRI’s therapy program can be life changing.

“Hollins was integral to me breaking through some personal barriers,” Marcus says. “I couldn’t be happier about going through the experience and what they were able to do for me.”

Community funding source
The reputation of the U.S. banking industry took a beating in the 2008-09 financial crisis. Virginia Community Capital (VCC), a nonprofit community development financial institution, is doing its part to change that.

With locations in Richmond and Christiansburg, VCC is made up of a nonprofit loan fund and a for-profit bank, which focuses on financing projects in four areas: affordable housing, community facilities, neighborhood/business district revitalization and local economic development/job creation.

One of VCC’s recent projects involved providing construction funding to renovate Suburbia Fairfax, an aging apartment complex near downtown Fairfax that’s home to more than 100 lower-income residents. Community Preservation and Development Corp., one of the largest affordable-housing developers in the mid-Atlantic region, is upgrading all 54 apartment units with energy-efficient appliances, low-flow toilets and faucets, and other improvements. The $10 million project should be complete by August.  “We thought it was important to have some homes in the area for people who were not the wealthiest,” says Tim Westrich, CPDC’s real estate development officer.

Other VCC-funded projects include a new community health-care center in Floyd County, a senior adult day-care center in Richmond and an expansion of plastic tubing manufacturer Essel Propack’s plant in Danville.

During the past five years, VCC has helped build or preserve more than 3,800 affordable housing units and created or retained more than 1,100 jobs.  “All of the work we do is mission-focused,” says Jane Henderson, VCC’s president and CEO. “With everything we put together as far as a financing packaging, there’s always a good, warm-hearted story that goes along with it.”

Putting people to work
There’s much more behind Goodwill’s storefronts than castoff clothing and second-hand furniture. Those $5 sweaters and $1 paperback novels ultimately put people to work.

“Our model is we sell those clothes [and other items] to help people become self-sufficient through the job-training programs we do,” says Jim Shaver, vice president of marketing and development for Goodwill Industries of the Valleys, one of six organizations that make up the Virginia Goodwill Network. “Everything we do is about work.”

In 2011, VGN was responsible for generating about 7,500 jobs and almost $13.3 million in tax revenues to Virginia and its localities. VGN’s overall annual economic impact in Virginia was $470 million, according to the Elliott D. Pollack research organization.

Henrico County resident Lenny Abele is one of the job seekers who have found work thanks to Goodwill. He was out of work for two years after he suffered a traumatic brain injury during a vehicle crash.

Through Goodwill’s Supported Employment Vocational Services program, Abele was hired to do custodial work at a Richmond courthouse. In April, he accepted a new job with ABM Janitorial Service in Richmond.

“This company puts him in a position where he’s doing some things he knows well, but he may also have some advancement opportunities in management,” says Taylor Greene, manager of the Goodwill program.

The Supported Employment program provides intensive, ongoing job-placement and coaching services to individuals with disabilities.

“Goodwill helped me 100 percent,” Abele says. “I’m glad to get back into the work force. Just having money in my pocket means the world to me … being able to help my better half with the bills means the world to me.”

Many of Goodwill’s services for job seekers are available free-of-charge. In the Richmond and Hampton Roads areas, Goodwill operates five employment centers that offer classes, career planning, résumé/interview preparation, job fairs, labor market information and more.

“We’ve had a wide array of people using our services, from computer technicians to someone who is an entry-level worker,” says Derby Brackett, VP of marketing and communications for Goodwill Industries Serving Hampton Roads and Central Virginia. “It’s really based on the need to get a job. That’s really the only qualifier.”

VGN itself also puts people to work in its stores and through contracts with various companies around the state.

In Radford, for example, Goodwill Industries of the Valleys employs four people who build tractor-trailer, sleep-cab components for Volvo Trucks North America. Another 10 people manufacture “Happy Turtles” for Tetra, one of the world’s largest suppliers of aquarium equipment. (The turtles are made out of a plaster-like material and help clarify aquarium water.) In Christiansburg, four people work for Goodwill’s wood pallet shop, supplying custom shipping pallets to several western Virginia companies.

“Everything behind our retail environment goes toward our mission of … putting people to work,” Brackett says.

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