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For People with Disabilities, Voting Has Always Required a Plan

Written by Mary Ellen Dingley, Communications and Outreach Coordinator of L’Arche Greater Washington, DC (GWDC)

You can’t miss the calls to vote these days. It’s everywhere – online and on yard signs, in hashtags and on t-shirts. The message is clear – make your voting plan and exercise your right to vote! But what about people with disabilities who face challenges accessing their voting rights?

A core member (adult with intellectual disability) at L’Arche GWDC expressed their desire to join their fellow community members in voting. But this core member’s right to vote had been taken away when they were placed under guardianship. A L’Arche leader stated that “with the right supports and the right accommodations” to communicate and explain the issues and candidates on the ballot, this core member could vote. They know who they want to vote for. They have explicitly said they want to vote. But they don’t have the right.

This core member isn’t alone. As Pew Trusts reported there are “tens of thousands of Americans with disabilities who every year lose their right to vote during guardianship proceedings, according to the California-based Spectrum Institute, an advocacy group for people with disabilities.” While this impacts thousands of people, the process itself isn’t standardized: “Not only is there no agreement among legal and psychological experts over whether certain people with disabilities should be disenfranchised, but there is also no set standard for measuring the mental capacity needed to vote.”

And even if someone with disabilities retains their right to vote, actually casting that vote can be difficult. Barriers can include not having a ballot they can read (visual disabilities or ballot formatting), not having an alternative to providing a signature, the voting location not being wheelchair accessible, no functioning accessible machines, or poll workers not knowing how to support people with disabilities. The pandemic, of course, just exacerbates the situation. This is no small number of people impacted by inaccessible voting. Rutgers University researchers found “A projected 38.3 million people with disabilities will be eligible to vote in the November 2020 elections, representing close to one-sixth of the total electorate.”

Fortunately, accessible voting does exist and is required by law. Charles Clark, a core family member at L’Arche GWDC, has been active as an advocate and a voter for many years. In his experience he’s always encountered accessible polling places: “that’s the law,” he explained. “Everybody has the right to vote… You discriminate against them, you get in trouble with the law, it’s on the law books.” Organizations and campaigns like the American Association for People with Disabilities REV UP campaign, Crip the Vote, and Easterseals work to end voter suppression, eliminate barriers to voting, and encourage people with disabilities to know their rights and cast a vote.

Asking “what’s your voting plan?” has become part of the “new normal” of 2020. For people with disabilities, including core members at L’Arche, having a voting plan has always been a necessity.

Prior to 2020, many people didn’t have to think of a “voting plan.” They just showed up to vote. “People with disabilities have always had to think about it,” explained Caitlin Smith, Director of Human Resources at L’Arche GWDC.

These questions that people are being encouraged to think about in 2020 – when you will vote, how you will get there – “L’Arche members think about every time an election comes around,” says Eva-Elizabeth Chisholm, Human Services Leader at GWDC. Making those voting plans and discussing them at L’Arche is a normal part of community life.

For the most part, L’Arche finds that our local polling places are accessible. But Caitlin explains that it’s “one thing for a voting process to be accessible and another thing for a person with disabilities to feel like they really belong there.” Other people at the polls might look askance at someone with a visible disability voting and might even question their ability to vote. “Voting as an inalienable right is one thing but voting and feeling like ‘I belong here, I am a person who can vote’…I think is something that in general society takes for granted.”

Core members have varied interactions with voting.

Joseph, a core member in DC, recently registered to vote. He said it was “a little bit” hard to register to vote. When asked if he thinks voting is important he said “Yes. It’s what I wanna do.”

Another core member at L’Arche voted in the last several presidential and local elections but had his right to vote taken away when his guardianship was transferred. L’Arche is now supporting him and his guardian in restoring the right to vote if they choose to do so.

Kelly has voted before and plans to again. She thought the presidential debate was important for getting to know the candidates and she watched both the presidential and the vice-presidential debate.

Lauren, Kelly, and Eric after voting in 2018

Lauren, Kelly, and Eric after voting in 2018

Mike was inspired to vote by his mom: “Mother said it was important and I believe her.” He first voted in 1969. The candidate’s speeches are important to him in choosing who to vote for.

Charles also learned about the importance of voting from his family – he had an uncle who was a congressman and another who was a judge. He reads about all the issues when voting, and specifically mentioned the job market, the Justice Department, and climate change as issues that are important to him. He’s passionate about politics: “So people have the right to vote for whoever they want to, you know.” He watches the news every evening. And what’s the most important thing about a candidate to him? “I look for sincerity and telling the truth,” he explained.

Ensuring that people with disabilities have the right to vote is no small matter. Many government policies directly impact their lives, including subminimum wage laws, marriage equality for people receiving disability benefits, and emergency funding during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Supporting people with intellectual disabilities to vote requires we “presume competence” says Eva-Elizabeth. That means presuming that even if they communicate or understand differently than the “norm” that communicating and understanding is still valid. We must presume people with disabilities are competent to make their own decisions when it comes to voting. A challenge in supporting people with intellectual disabilities to vote is to do so without making a decision for them.

Right now, L’Arche leaders are working with the core member and guardian mentioned at the beginning of this article to restore voting rights. To do so they must come up with the means of communicating the voting choices and supporting decision making in an unbiased way. “That’s one of the biggest things that people are worried about… is this the person’s choice?” says Eva-Elizabeth.

The right to freely choose who to vote for isn’t one to be taken lightly. At L’Arche GWDC, we’re busy putting our voting plans into motion! How about you?

This blog was originally published on October 21, 2020 on the L’Arche website.

How I Learned about the Power of Advocacy

Written by Jasmine Alarcon, Youth Leader from Mikva Challenge DC

When I was in tenth grade I took a Japanese language and culture course and instantly fell in love with it. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was actually able to go to Japan through the class and not just learn about it through a textbook or maybe it’s just because it was just an amazing course. I loved every minute of it, celebrating not only the similarities between Japanese culture, my Guatemalan culture and American culture, but also the differences between them too. One of those differences being that Japanese culture has a special day to celebrate the youth, which is Children’s Day or, in Japanese, Kodomo no Hi. On this day, households put up special decorations and eat special dishes to celebrate the youth. Although American culture doesn’t have a holiday like this, Mikva Challenge programs are all about this idea of celebrating youth.

Mikva Challenge celebrates the different backgrounds youth come from and teaches them how to use their experiences to be involved in civic leadership. I became involved with them when I started my senior year of high school and was completely unaware of what I may want to do with my life. But ever since then, I have decided that I would want a career in advocacy. Through Mikva Challenge, I became involved in their Elections In Action Fellowship, where I had the opportunity to learn issues that youth care about and canvas for presidential candidates. I was also a part of their Summer Fellows program where I was able to intern in the Office of the Student Advocate and learn about the issues they are trying to fix in DC Public and Charter Schools. Mikva Challenge did a great job celebrating our successes on the work we were doing but also checking in with us to make sure we were doing well mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. They made us feel like a team and family through their praises and support, which is why I thought the holiday celebrated in Japan resonated well with what Mikva Challenge’s mission is about.

Both of these programs within Mikva Challenge DC allowed me to continue advocating and learning about issues in my community. The newest program with them that I am a part of is being a Youth Census Ambassador, which I am currently doing during my gap semester before college. With a partnership between DC Action for Children and Mikva DC, I was given the opportunity to text bank people in my community to remind them to fill out the Census, which is crucial to make sure communities receive the resources they need, especially during this time in a pandemic. Even though I would get a lot of people who wouldn’t respond to my text, there were always the ones who did, either to say they already filled it out or that they haven’t. To be able to help at least one person fill out the Census was fulfilling because that one person may have a big family or know other individuals who haven’t filled out the Census, which will in turn make a difference in the number of people who do fill it out. I enjoyed my time with Mikva and being a Youth Census Ambassador and just doing my part in my community.

Jasmine conducting an Instagram Live on the importance of completing the Census and how to vote safely in November.

Jasmine conducting an Instagram Live on the importance of completing the Census and how to vote safely in November.

Mikva Challenge DC worked with over 1200 students last year through our direct youth work that Jasmine describes above, and our partnerships with classroom teachers. This school year, we are actively supporting students to be engaged in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election, to make their voices heard on issues affecting them in their school and communities through our Project Soapbox program, and empowering DC youth to create their own “Youth Values Budget” for DC to advocate for issues that are most important to them and their communities through our after school, Elections in Action Youth Fellowship. To get involved with our work, contact Mikva DC’s Executive Director Robyn Lingo at


After-School Programming During COVID: Virtual Lessons, Real Impact

Written by Davide Carozza, Development Coordinator at After-School All-Stars DC

When DC Public Schools ended in-person classes on March 16th to combat the spread of COVID-19, After-School All-Stars DC (ASAS DC) was ready to help students stay connected with their learning communities. Working with trusted partner Enjoy Your Life 365 (EYL 365), a non-profit comprised of local artists and focused on harnessing the “power of art as an instrumental tool for social and environmental change,” we transformed our after-school services for the virtual classroom setting. Offering a rich variety of classes like visual arts, digital photography, music production, spoken word, fitness, cooking, dance, and mentoring services, we supported over 300 middle-schoolers from April 6th to June 26th.

The majority of our programming happened live, with students joining secure Zoom sessions led by specialized instructors and overseen by ASAS DC staff. Some content was also published to the ASAS DC Kids YouTube channel, available at any time for students and families looking for safe and engaging opportunities for recreation and learning from home. We were able to use this virtual teaching experience as a test bed, refining quality online programming, safety protocols for students, and new recruitment strategies while offering professional development training in online teaching to our staff members.


The changing face of teaching art

The changing face of teaching art


Our quick pivot to virtual classrooms reflects our deep ties to the communities we serve. We knew that disadvantaged families would need all the support we could give them, so when schools closed we immediately reached out to conduct a basic needs assessment and lay the foundation for virtual after-school. We connected families with the resources they would need in order to participate in online learning and maintain healthy social lives. We also assisted the school system in ensuring the delivery of their academic programming; as much as possible, we sought to give our families the structure of a regular school schedule. This experience will be invaluable as we prepare for a fall semester that won’t resemble anything we have seen before.

Art as a tool of social justice

Art as a tool of social justice

Finding your spirit animal through art

Finding your spirit animal through art

Explorations in self-expression

Explorations in self-expression

Our efforts made a real impact on the lives of the families we served, as evidenced by the parent testimonials we collected. Nassar Sanogo, mother of two of our All-Stars, wrote in her testimonial that our virtual programming was a “daily reminder there is kindness” in the world, and praised the “emotional support” ASAS DC offered “by always supporting my family. They really understood what it felt like being stuck at home with little kids. I am truly grateful for the virtual sessions, for dropping the materials, the gifts, and physically and emotionally supporting my kids and me at ease. You don’t how much it meant when you dropped the supplies for the kids. It made them feel great and focused less on COVID-19.” Another mother, Tabitha Bates, wrote that having her son “participate with the online creative sessions was a great way for him to express himself creatively with all the things going on in the world today. Jayden was given the opportunity to think outside the box which is good for him. He was also able to communicate with peers which is good for him being an only child. Ms. Candice and all of the teachers were wonderful and very dedicated in making sure Jayden was learning as well as having fun. I’m very happy that Jayden had a chance to experience this new virtual way of learning.”

As the new semester kicks into high gear, the need for our services has never been greater. DC Public Schools have decided not to offer any virtual after-school activities, leaving non-profits like us to fill the gap. This fall, ASAS DC will continue to provide the enrichment activities that proved so successful in April, May, and June. In addition, we are developing a strong tutoring/homework support component with the help of Federal Work Study college students and incorporating trauma-informed care into our mentoring services through a tele-therapy partner. Our corporate partners have been working with us to brainstorm ways to deliver career exploration experiences to students, with some professional contacts joining our enrichment classes to talk to students about careers in related fields. Finally, in our discussions with them about fall programming, principals stressed the importance of keeping students connected to the school. One-time virtual experiences, events, and showcases can be as valuable as ongoing services for disadvantaged communities, helping to keep them in the fold during difficult times. We’re arranging a host of attractive options, including guest speakers from the sports world, virtual visits like “a night at the museum,” music concerts, classes based on popular platforms like TikTok, and science experiments.

In closing, we’d like to highlight one recent virtual experience that was organized by the National office of ASAS, in partnership with TikTok, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, and the prestigious Bandier Program in Recording and Entertainment Industries at Syracuse University. This past summer, ASAS chapters across the country were asked to nominate students for an online Songwriting Academy that lasted for five weeks. Thirteen All-Stars were chosen, and ASAS DC is proud to say that our own Tayvaughn S. was among them. Tayvaughn has long been part of our music programming, and his passion is infectious. After being nominated, he wrote an essay for ASAS National describing his love for music and earning a place in the Academy.

Tayvaughn and his fellow All-Stars worked with a star-studded cast of industry experts, including Timbaland, Jozzy, Tiagz, Jack Harlow, JetsonMade, DJ Dahi, Ilsey Juber, Tainy, Anitta, Melanie Martinez, Mikey Keenan, and featured guest Virtual sessions consisted of both one-on-one work in which students were paired with a music industry professional and group discussions in which songs and lyrics were analyzed and refined. Tayvaughn relished the chance to be formally recognized as an artist – which is exactly how he sees himself. Reflecting on the experience, Tayvaughn said, “The program has helped me by expanding my field and giving me the constructive criticism I needed. I enjoyed how the team was hands-on with us. They gave me the ability to experience what other musicians go through before they’re successful. Through this experience I have tapped into resources that better my own talent. Thank you for teaching us how to comprehend the language known as music.”

Jemn Napper, a Teaching Artist at EYL 365 and Tayvaughn’s longtime mentor for ASAS DC music programming, joined him for these virtual sessions and was impressed by the music he produced. As Jemn put it, “Not only did Tayvaughn remind me to have important conversations about social justice, especially police brutality, but he was brave enough to talk about things from his own perspective. To simply say his words were moving is not enough. By coming out of his comfort zone I believe he inspired everybody to dive into the deeper parts of their subconscious; creating even more dialogue for change. When took the moment to break down his lyrics, I knew that Tayvaughn had something special to share with the world.”

At ASAS DC, we strive to ensure that all of our programming is driven by student voice and choice, so we were thrilled that out work with Tayvaughn helped bring that voice to a wider community. Like Jemn, we think this is just the beginning for him. When we learn of and share in Tayvaughn’s successes, and when we hear from our parents that our efforts have a real impact on their lives and the lives of their children, we are reminded of the power of what we do, and the promise of those we help. If we can work to give our All-Stars and their families opportunities for learning, growth, recreation, and self-expression, there is no telling what they will accomplish. What we do know is that they will repay our efforts many times over, becoming leaders in their community and in the struggle for a brighter, more equitable world.

If you would like to learn more about our work, find us at our website, which includes links to all of our social media, or follow us on Facebook. To learn more about the Songwriting Academy, click here.





Channeling My Inner Mr. Rogers

When COVID-19 hit the Greater Washington Region in March, it was an overwhelming moment for all of us. Story Tapestries’ programs and services, including performances, workshops, and artist-in-residencies, are interactive in-person experiences. However, that model was suddenly no longer an option as theatres, schools, libraries, and other public gathering places closed to protect the health and safety of every community member. Story Tapestries worked quickly to identify ways to continue fulfilling our mission, and we listened carefully to the needs of our stakeholders to make sure we were coming up with solutions that were meaningful and effective. We are so proud of our team of artists and educators because they took on this new challenge with a wonderful spirit of camaraderie and hope – bringing the magic that they make on the stage and in the classroom to the computer screen! Here is one artist’s story about what that has meant for her.

Written by Noa Baum, Storyteller and Master Teaching Artist at Story Tapestries

Noa Baum, Photo by Sam Kitner

We are in uncharted and scary times. Like so many all over the world, performers and workshop leaders like me saw our livelihood vanish overnight with festivals, conferences, and live school events cancelled everywhere. It has been an emotional rollercoaster and a challenge to gather my energy or feel centered.

Story Tapestries invited me to offer my work in a virtual format. At first, I couldn’t imagine it.

Not only was I feeling lifeless and not in the least bit creative, but also questioning how to tell stories without a live audience. Storytelling is a communicative event in space and time! It is a relationship. My style is highly interactive and physical, with audience participation as the driving force of the story. How do I create a relationship across screens? And with everyone muted, as they need to be in order for Zoom to function well, how do I hear their reactions? How do I know if they are even listening? If they like it?

Then I remembered Mr. Rogers. He was the first television show I had ever seen in my life. It was August 1968. I was ten years old, just arrived from Israel with my family for my father’s two-year sabbatical at Sandford University in California. I didn’t know a word of English but there he was, Mr. Rogers on the screen, in color, and it felt like he was talking to me! I still remember the sense of connection I felt as he spoke with that gentle voice, his eyes looking straight into mine, inviting me into his neighborhood.

Channeling my inner Mr. Rogers, I ventured into ZoomLand. I welcomed the children and invited them to answer back by showing with thumbs up when I ask a question, to twinkle with their hands to show appreciation. Then, like him, I looked into the camera so to my viewers it would look like I’m looking directly at them. I slowed down. I slowed down a lot. I minimized and gathered my gestures. I was sensing the presence of the children rather than actually seeing them in the little boxes on the screen. I put my trust in my craft and imagination, put my faith in the story and dove into it.

It brought me more joy than I can put in words. All the chaos and hurt of the world vanished. All the worries and fears disappeared. I found myself moved to tears seeing wide-eyed children, on a parent’s lap or sprawled on the couch or bed, smiling or jumping up and down in glee. It wasn’t the same as being in a live event, but we were connecting. I felt ALIVE and less alone.

To my great surprise I discovered there were gifts in this strange ZoomLand: people who couldn’t come to a live performance before showed up across borders and time zones, families from Singapore and India, together with my next-door neighbors and people from other places in the US.

And perhaps the biggest gift of all: 5-year-old Kavin from Singapore was so excited about the Hebrew words he learned in our session, his mom turned on the camera so that she would capture what he wanted to share.

I am so grateful to Story Tapestries for this precious opportunity to allow me to continue the work I love in a format people can access at a distance so that we are all protected. It is the next best thing to a live show sharing the same space.

Storytelling is a powerful reminder that we are all connected. Now more than ever, we and our students need our stories, the family stories, the ancient folktales from every culture on this fragile planet, that hold so much wisdom and shine the light into the beauty and resilience of our human spirit.

Learn more about Noa Baum as an artist and educator here. To hear more stories, join Story Tapestries for our 10-Year Anniversary Celebration – ONLINE! Click here to learn more and consider reserving your seat at our virtual table. We encourage our supporters through the Catalogue for Philanthropy to use this unique discount code: CFPFriend10. We look forward to celebrating with you!




6 Tips on Training Your Volunteers During COVID-19

Having transitioned your nonprofit’s volunteer programs to accommodate the pandemic, now you must also transition your volunteer training. Your orientation is crucial to ensuring high-quality work and high volunteer retention. Here, we have collected 6 tips on how to effectively train your volunteers in a remote space.

Volunteers Training

Tip 1. Contextualize Your Work

If volunteers understand your work’s context, then they’ll provide higher-quality labor and feel more intellectually engaged. During your orientation, provide background information about:

  • The social issue’s causes, history, scope, and impact
  • The community’s history, demographics, opportunities, strengths, and current challenges
  • Your organization’s history, impact, challenges, current goals, and how it intersects with the community

All of this information should be updated for this moment in time. For example, if your nonprofit addresses homelessness, explain how the economic downturn is affecting eviction rates, how homeless individuals experience a higher risk of COVID-19, and how housing inequities can be viewed through a racial justice lens.

Tip 2. Share Stories and Stats

Don’t just tell your volunteers — show them! Take advantage of virtual orientations to get creative when presenting information to your trainees. Demonstrate community need with eye-popping statistics and informative news articles for them to read ahead of time. Videos are engaging; whenever possible, use video calls and share well-produced videos, possibly of your clients speaking to camera. Ask current volunteers to share stories, lessons learned, and advice.

Tip 3. Value Volunteers

Your volunteers need to know and feel like their work truly matters. Maintain your volunteers’ motivation (and retention) by explaining how their work impacts your organization and the community at large. Explain how their service will save resources because the work might not have happened otherwise due to limited staff time. Also communicate how their work will be remembered and be built upon into the future — people want to know that their seemingly small task contributes to a series of efforts that make a sustainable impact.

Tip 4. Encourage Participation

The last thing volunteers want is to listen to a monologue for 45 minutes. Offer multiple opportunities for trainees to speak up and participate during orientation. Ask them to engage their prior knowledge, relating their experiences with those of clients; for example, when talking about summer learning loss, ask volunteers to describe what their own childhood summers were like. Use break-out rooms to not only have volunteers role-play, but also to socialize and build a sense of community. Take advantage of polls and online quizzes to test knowledge learned and get temperature checks on group opinions.

Tip 5. Build Up Skills (and Confidence)

Set your volunteers up for success by covering the hard skills, soft skills, and expectations needed for the work. Whether it be packaging donations or virtually filing documents, demonstrate the task before letting them practice. Consider sharing your screen or recording demonstration videos for their reference. For more interpersonal and relational work — such as answering 24/7 hotlines — have your volunteers role-play with each other in break-out rooms. Your orientation provides an opportunity to depict ideal behaviors and give volunteers the confidence and direction they need.

Tip 6. Be Flexible

By their very nature, virtual trainings differ from those in-person. Attention spans online are shorter than in person, so limit your orientation to thirty minutes, an hour at most. It is easier to host multiple small orientations online than trying to find a single large in-person time that fits everyone’s schedules. If you don’t have enough time to re-write your orientation curriculum for an online platform, outsource to your current volunteers! Your long-term, most trusted volunteers can help design and lead your virtual volunteer orientations.



Celebrating 60 Years of Affordable Housing for Seniors

Written by Christy Zeitz, CEO of Fellowship Square

The need for affordable housing and services for older adults has exploded nationally – and locally. With housing, rental and health care costs soaring, older adults are now at greater risk of homelessness than at any time in recent history. Only one in three low-income seniors receive the housing assistance they are eligible for because the programs are small compared to real need.

Fellowship Square works tirelessly to help. This Fall, Fellowship Square celebrates our 60th anniversary, marking six decades of providing safe, affordable, well-managed and attractive apartment living for some 800+ older adults (age 62+) who meet low-income criteria set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Through our four communities in the Washington DC metro region, Fellowship Square offers not only accessible and affordable housing for seniors, but also vital services and programs that help our residents lead healthy and active lifestyles.

Our Beginning

Fellowship Square’s founding in 1960 was led by Rev. Dr. John A. Scherzer (1901-1994), a pastor and member of the Lutheran Lay Fellowship of Metropolitan Washington who aspired to bring together his local community to better support vulnerable seniors and assure they had access to safe and affordable housing. Under his stewardship, a corporate charter for Fellowship Square was issued by the D.C. government on November 30, 1960. In those early years, Fellowship Square assisted a diverse population of older adults and sought funding and land to build an affordable housing community in the region. In 1970, FSF broke ground on the Lake Anne Fellowship House in Reston, VA, and welcomed residents in 1971. The community soon expanded, with the Lake Anne II Fellowship House opening just five years later (1976). Over the next decade, Fellowship Square expanded its communities and geographic reach with Hunters Woods Fellowship House in Reston, VA (1979), Lake Ridge Fellowship House in Woodbridge, VA (1983), and Largo Landing Fellowship in Upper Marlboro, MD (1984).


Fellowship Square Today

Fellowship Square’s four communities in Northern Virginia and Maryland currently provide 670 affordable apartments in a safe and dignified environment for more than 830 older adults (aged 62+) living on extremely limited fixed incomes. Many of our residents live on Social Security or Supplemental Security Income alone, and the average annual income across our communities is approximately $12,000/year. Funding and subsidies from HUD and other organizations ensure that rent is never more than 30% of a resident’s income.

Fellowship Square proudly enables residents like Sharlene Fanning, 71, have a safe, stable, affordable and comfortable place to live and thrive:

“In my 60s, I was working three jobs in childcare and food service and still couldn’t afford to rent my own apartment in the area. So for some time, I was renting a single room in apartments and living with roommates. But even rent for a single room kept getting higher and higher to a point I couldn’t afford. I finally had to move in with my daughter and her family. We were 6 people in a three bedroom apartment and I was living in a room with my granddaughters. I wanted more independence and not to be a burden. On my 62nd birthday, I dropped off my application for Fellowship Square’s Lake Ridge Fellowship House. With the housing benefits I receive, I can live on my own and be active in the community here. I don’t know how other people do it. There are so many other baby boomers out there who I’m worried about if there are not more housing programs for seniors. I’m worried that many could end up moving from room to room as I did, or homeless and on the street.”

FS 2

Fellowship Square Amid COVID-19

With the help of our committed staff, volunteers, and community groups, we also aim to meet the physical, social, and emotional needs of our residents with dozens of opportunities each month for residents to be active, engaged, and reminded that they are a valued part of our community. These have included cooking classes, choirs, visits from therapy dogs, cards playing, painting, and art.

While most activities are on hiatus right now due to COVID-19 and social distancing, Fellowship Square and our staff and volunteers are ensuring that no one suffers from isolation. With safety as a top priority, we have closed common areas and restricted non-essential visitors — while at the same time holding “check in & chat” calls, encouraging residents to take on hobbies such as puzzles and art, as well as get their bodies moving with outside walks. I’m pleased to report that our communal gardens have never looked more beautiful, as a handful of residents are managing pandemic stress through gardening!

Gardening at Lake Ridge Fellowship House

Gardening at Lake Ridge Fellowship House

Gardens at Lake Ridge Fellowship House

Gardens at Lake Ridge Fellowship House

We’ve also received unbelievable support from our local community during this time. Although many of our residents have been avoiding crowded grocery stores, they are still eating well thanks to the donation and delivery of food, milk, prepared meals and care packages from groups including McLean Bible Church, Lake Ridge Baptist Church, the Woodbridge Rotary, Greater Mt. Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church, St. Anne Episcopal Church Food Pantry and many more. Our residents need and appreciate these efforts! Learn about opportunities to help with food donations and contactless food delivery, or volunteer to call residents to check in on their well-being. We especially need volunteers who speak Korean, Chinese, Farsi and Russian.

Addressing the Unique Senior Housing Demands of the DC Region

The demand for affordable senior housing is particularly high in the greater Washington DC region, where an annual income of nearly $60,000 is needed to afford a 1-bedroom apartment. In the past, seniors of limited means used to be able to stay in their homes or downsize into rental apartments. Today in our region, however, older renters are getting squeezed out as rents and real-estate prices have exploded and affordably priced options disappear.

Take for example the experience that 89 year old Fellowship Square resident Nancy Delay shared:

“My husband and I were in our 60s and had to move apartments every few years to stay in one we could afford. When the rents would raise at the end of our initial rental agreement, we so often could no longer afford it and would have to start all over to find something in our price range again. We lived in many places in Maryland and Virginia as my husband neared his retirement from the postal service, and as rents kept rising it was getting harder and harder to find an apartment where we could stay for the long term. My daughter found Fellowship Square for us and we were able to move in. Today, it can take years to get in. I feel for the seniors in our area who are on long waitlists for housing help and whose lives are in distress. They don’t have the money for the rent they are paying now and can end up homeless and, worse, sleeping on the street or in a shelter. I want our government and community to do what it can to build more affordable housing and subsidized housing for seniors. I’m now 89 and I’ve been safe and secure and living healthily in a stable home because I’ve had the benefits of subsidized housing. I want that for others.”

Fellowship Square kicked off its 60th year with two groundbreakings to meet the increasing affordable housing needs of older adults well into the future:

  • Redevelopment of its Lake Anne Fellowship House, an $86+ million project that includes the construction of a new 240-apartment building to replace the existing property.
  • A $12+ million renovation to the Hunters Woods Fellowship House to modernize its 225-units that provide affordable housing to 300+ residents by enhancing amenities and common space.

FS 4

These communities will help local seniors like Sharlene Fanning, 71:

“In my 60s, I was working three jobs in childcare and food service and still couldn’t afford to rent my own apartment in the area. So for some time, I was renting a single room in apartments and living with roommates. But even rent for a single room kept getting higher and higher to a point I couldn’t afford. I finally had to move in with my daughter and her family. We were 6 people in a three bedroom apartment and I was living in a room with my granddaughters. I wanted more independence and not to be a burden. On my 62nd birthday, I dropped off my application for Fellowship Square’s Lake Ridge Fellowship House. With the housing benefits I receive, I can live on my own and be active in the community here. I don’t know how other people do it. There are so many other baby boomers out there who I’m worried about if there are not more housing programs for seniors. I’m worried that many could end up moving from room to room as I did, or homeless and on the street.”

Celebrating Our Yesterdays, Todays and Tomorrows

Fellowship Square has provided homes for thousands of low-income seniors since our founding in 1960 and has been on the front lines of the affordable housing challenge ever since. We at Fellowship Square appreciate that aging is something to be appreciated and celebrated. We embark on this highly unusual 60th anniversary year amid the global COVID-19 pandemic prepared to protect and serve our residents. Our in-person celebrations may be postponed, but through the pandemic and beyond we continue to engage our excellent staff, energetic volunteers, committed supporters and community stakeholders to work together to meet the affordable housing needs of today and the future.

There are many ways to get involved in the mission of the Fellowship Square and support seniors with very limited incomes and resources. Join us as a volunteer, have your business or nonprofit become a community partner, consider board membership, attend or sponsor an event, or pursue an internship or career position.

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6 Steps to Jumpstarting Your New Volunteer Programs

Nonprofit work often depends upon volunteers. Not only do volunteer programs provide free labor, they also present valuable opportunities for community awareness and engagement. Unfortunately, the pandemic rendered many of these programs impossible to continue safely. During this time, people are looking for ways to connect, occupy their time, and make a difference. This is your nonprofit’s opportunity to harness this energy and re-imagine your volunteer programs for a new physically distanced society. Here, we have listed 6 steps you can take to jumpstart your new volunteer programs within the COVID-19 context.

Jumpstarting New Volunteer Programs

Step 1. Identify Your Organization’s Needs

Do you even need volunteers right now? In this new landscape, your organization’s needs might look dramatically different than they did pre-pandemic. Your programming and consequent staff responsibilities have likely shifted in response to your clients’ new needs, so take some time to evaluate resulting labor gaps. Do you have immediate one-time needs or ongoing opportunities? Have you lost volunteers? Would the time invested in training be less than time saved if your staff simply completed the task themselves?

Step 2. Identify Possible Volunteer Tasks

Some remote volunteer possibilities include:

  • Community Outreach. This work is best suited for your volunteers who are looking for a way to connect with others. They can assist with time-intensive relationship building tasks such as telephone wellness checks with clients, hotline/call center staffing, or organizing virtual group meetings with community members.
  • Administration. When armed with a computer and internet access, your volunteer’s admin support can look like anything from grant writing to virtual filing. What are those tasks that would mightily improve your team’s efficiency, but are just never urgent enough to make the week’s “priority list”?
  • Content Development. Your volunteers can assist with time-intensive research and curriculum adaptation as you transition your educational programming to an online format. Depending on their personal background and expertise, they might also be able to prepare and present specific topics to share with your clients and community!
  • Fundraising. Who do your volunteers know? Ask your volunteers to help you market your nonprofit’s needs with their peers and communities and you could very well uncover a small treasure of new grassroots support.

Other volunteer work will be unavoidably in person. In which case, evaluate how your programs will operate with proper safety measures in place. Can you limit group sizes, enforce mask-wearing, provide sufficient PPE, and screen individuals with symptoms?

Step 3. Prioritize and Plan Your Program(s)

Transitioning your volunteer programs is a big change! Experiment with launching just a few initial programs to work out the kinks before you expand further. Carefully consider which volunteer activities would work well under safety restrictions, which needs are the most urgent, and which are best suited to your volunteer population. Send your existing volunteer pool a survey about their comfort level with technology and various in-person activities. For example, some volunteers might be too vulnerable for in-person activities or lack experience with online platforms; they might prefer telephone-based volunteering instead.

Step 4. Recruit Volunteers

The first place you should look when recruiting volunteers: your previous volunteers! During crises, doing familiar work fosters feelings of comfort and stability. Those who volunteered before are likely to do so again even if the exact task looks fairly different. However, if post-survey you find that not enough of your existing volunteers are comfortable with returning, you’ll need to recruit. Your recruitment pitch should focus on immediate impact, community, and connection — these are the 3 most pressing concerns in this moment. Also, publicize your volunteer positions on social media to reach a wider audience. After all, if your work is virtual, it doesn’t matter where applicants live.

Step 5. Set Volunteers Up for Success

If you want to retain your volunteer force, make sure they have the technology, skills, information, and emotional support they need. What supplies do they need: printers, a strong internet connection, a Zoom account, phone minutes, masks, gloves, flexible hours? Are you able to transition your orientation online in an engaging, effective, and dialogue-driven way? Teach them the context of the social issue they’ll be working on, as well as whatever hard and soft skills they will need. Whenever possible, use video. Quick personal videos from staff can be a fun and personal way to engage volunteers, and live video calls are an excellent way for volunteers to plug into their new community.

Step 6. Monitor and Adjust

This will be a learn-as-you-go process. Regularly check in with your volunteers to gauge their experiences with your new program and to learn what roadblocks they might be encountering. Express your gratitude, even to past volunteers who can no longer make the pivot. Gather data through anonymous, unobtrusive (e.g. less than 3 minutes to complete) surveys to discover which elements of your pilot program should be replicated for future endeavors, and which experiments should be set aside. Keep your supporters, clients, and volunteers in the loop about your ongoing changes in response to our new reality; as faithful members of your community, they will understand and want you to succeed.





Celebrating Milestones: HomeAid Northern Virginia Completes 150th Project Renovating Homeless Shelters & Rebuilding Lives

Written by Kristyn Burr, Executive Director and CEO of HomeAid Northern Virginia

This summer, HomeAid Northern Virginia proudly completed its 150th project of building and upgrading emergency shelters and supportive housing facilities for those experiencing homelessness! These 150 projects have spanned:

  • building a brand new residence for runaway teens (Youth for Tomorrow in Bristow, VA)
  • renovating residences for female veterans experiencing homelessness (Final Salute in Fairfax, VA)
  • updating multi-unit supportive housing properties (Community Lodgings in Alexandria, VA)
  • expanding local food pantries (Loudoun Hunger Relief in Loudoun, VA)
  • installing upgraded security at domestic violence shelters (Artemis House in Fairfax, VA)

See a complete listing of HomeAid projects here.

We do this by connecting regional homebuilders and housing industry professionals with local nonprofit organizations focused on ending homelessness. Our building industry partners donate their expertise, time, and resources to renovate or build homeless shelters, housing facilities, and other spaces at little to no cost to the nonprofit service provider. Importantly, this allows HomeAid’s nonprofit partners to allocate their scarce resources on programming and supportive interventions such as job skills training and mental health services that improve lives and greatly facilitate the transition out of homelessness, rather than on construction/renovation costs.

150th Renovation: Winchester Rescue Mission


Our milestone 150th project is our recent renovation of the Winchester Rescue Mission, which provides safe and secure housing for 33 individuals, serves up to 80 individuals at its nightly dinner, and operates a community food pantry — all within a historic 1930′s building that was in dire need of upgrade. HomeAid Northern Virginia with our “Builder Captain” Dan Ryan Builders and three construction trade partners installed new flooring throughout the building, repainted the entire interior, and replaced flooring and tiling throughout.

“This facility is critical to carrying out our mission of supporting individuals who are experiencing homelessness, and some of our programs — such as providing meals and offering laundry and shower facilities for resident and community use — are components that we feel can keep others from becoming homeless,” said Winchester Rescue Mission Executive Director Brandan Thomas, “There are so many in our community who are on the verge, and losing our ability to serve because of issues with our building would be truly devastating. We haven’t been able to make any updates to the building since 1985, so this renovation is a gamechanger. The cafeteria is probably the most incredible example, with luxury plank replacing a really worn concrete floor that had layers of peeling paint. It is a beautiful facility now, and all of the other changes allow us to service people more fully and more efficiently. This building is a source of pride for our whole community now, and we are so grateful.”

Winchester Rescue Mission

Winchester Rescue Mission

Winchester Rescue Mission

Winchester Rescue Mission

The Unique Challenge of Renovating Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

It is important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic did not halt our work. Through deliberative and creative coordination with building crews, we were able to complete the Winchester Rescue Mission project and other projects already underway when the pandemic took hold. Balancing the need for worker safety, we and our building partners deployed small crews at different time intervals to finish projects.

In fact, construction is considered essential during these uncertain times, and new HomeAid projects continue to move forward today as housing and service providers prepare for a potential homelessness crisis in the region as coronavirus emergency protections end — and evictions begin. The need for supportive and affordable housing programs will be more keenly felt than ever. We are ready to serve and are looking strategically ahead to the next 150 projects in the coming years to build sustainable solutions to prevent and end homelessness and rebuild lives.

Real World Impact: Each Project Brings Hope & Dignity

Across our 150 projects, HomeAid Northern Virginia has invested more than $18 millionin building a better community and has generously donated $11 million in labor, time, materials, and expertise. This has real-world impact. This is money that our shelter partners can invest in people rather than on building projects, helping them with things like life skills and job training, rather than on building maintenance. This is money that means children have somewhere safe to go after school.

This is funding that helps close the enormous funding gaps that exist between what our community nonprofits need versus have — making a real difference in our ability to provide safe and stable places for the 167,000 people who have benefitted from our enhanced spaces as they work to regain their independence.

Most importantly, each of the 150 projects bring hope and dignity to individuals and families struggling to obtain stable housing and in need of critical wrap-around services. Adults and children experiencing homelessness can rebuild their lives in safe and dignified spaces thanks to our partnerships with homebuilders and construction trade partners who collaborate with us and our nonprofit partners to build solutions to end homelessness. These collaborative partnerships enable homebuilders to do what they do best (build!) and service providers to do what they do best (provide supportive programs and wrap-around services!). At the end of the day, our building projects rebuild lives and, as one of our nonprofit partners recently told us, “serve as a launchpad for new beginnings.”

HomeAid Northern Virginia launched the HomeAid 150 Campaign to commemorate this milestone, engage supporters, and make a difference in the lives of those experiencing homelessness.

“It is so special for the women in our program to move into a beautiful and newly upgraded residence like this. It helps them to feel, sometimes for the first time, that they themselves deserve to live in a beautiful space. It really reinforces to them that they are in the next chapter of their story. It reinforces to them their responsibilities to themselves and to the program. When you live in a space that is beautiful, you have to maintain it. You have to put in the work– both in this house and in their lives, inside and out. HomeAid Northern Virginia truly created a beautiful space to serve as a launch pad for new beginnings.”-Friends of Guest House executive director Kari Galloway


Adapting Project Soapbox in the Time of COVID-19

Written by Justine Hipsky, Program Director of Mikva Challenge DC

A bustling auditorium. Dozens of middle and high school students pouring in the front doors and following the signs down the escalators, some springing with excitement and some whispering to their friends and their teachers about how nervous they’re starting to feel. A lively registration table with pump-up music playing in the background and an assortment of colorful nametags out for the taking. The sound of 120 young people playing musical questions to start the day before launching into a spirited Rock Paper Scissors tournament, building community and shaking off any nerves. This is a typical start of Mikva Challenge DC’s annual Citywide Project Soapbox event, an electrifying in-person celebration of youth expertise.

One of Mikva Challenge DC's in-person Soapbox events, prior to COVID-19

One of Mikva Challenge DC’s in-person Soapbox events, prior to COVID-19

Mikva DC’s work revolves around amplifying youth voice and creating meaningful opportunities for DC’s young people to “learn democracy by doing democracy” through Action Civics, with one of our cornerstone programs being Project Soapbox. Project Soapbox asks young people to, well, get up on their soapboxes! Answering the prompt of “What is the most pressing issue facing your community, and what should be done about it?”, over a thousand middle and high school students from all eight Wards of DC write and deliver a 2-3 minute-long soapbox speech in their classrooms during the fall semester – on topics ranging from housing costs to gun violence to the inequities of public education – with finalists from every classroom attending our annual Citywide event each December.

Throughout a typical fall, we host professional learning community dinners and curriculum trainings for our incredible partner teachers. We visit schools, run guest lessons to kick off the Project Soapbox unit, and coordinate over 75 adult allies to visit these classrooms as civic partners and guest judges.

One of Mikva Challenge DC's in-person Soapbox events, prior to COVID-19

One of Mikva Challenge DC’s in-person Soapbox events, prior to COVID-19

Of course, now, as we look ahead to the start of a new school that seems anything but “typical,” we’ve been asking ourselves the same questions as so many others. How do we continue to support our teachers and students effectively in the lead up to Soapbox and beyond? And how do we meet this moment to not only adapt our existing model but to also innovate and improve?

A huge piece of this innovation has been to adapt our Issues to Action curriculum to accommodate both asynchronous and synchronous remote learning. Mikva’s Issues to Action curriculum guides students through six steps of community problem-solving:

  1. Identity and Community Analysis
  2. Project Soapbox: Issue Identification and Envisioning Change
  3. Research
  4. Power Analysis
  5. Strategizing and Taking Action
  6. Showcase and Reflection.

Not long after social distancing began, we collaborated as a national team to convert key lessons and activities to be student-facing. From media literacy to how to create a community asset map to how to identify a Project Soapbox issue, we’ve compiled an array of resources for this age of physically distanced education. After receiving teacher input, we are continuing to expand our digital activity offerings to cover the span of the Issues to Action curriculum and to create and share fun instructional videos, student-facing PowerPoints, as well as opportunities for students to attend virtual election events this fall.

We are thrilled to continue to provide as many digital resources to our teachers and students as possible to amplify youth voices remotely, but we also know that teaching and learning don’t happen in a bubble. Since we sadly can’t bring our teacher cohort together in person for training and fellowship in the coming months as we normally would, we hosted a highly interactive, three-day Action Civics Institute over Zoom in early August. During this institute, we modeled how to build community and develop empathy in virtual classroom spaces in preparation for Project Soapbox and held two immersive Project Soapbox sessions where teachers got to explore how to facilitate digitally, as well as write and deliver their very own powerful speeches! To close, we asked participating teachers to encapsulate their professional development experience in one word. Some of the responses included:




A recent Mikva Challenge DC's virtual teacher training

A recent Mikva Challenge DC’s virtual teacher training

To build on this momentum and further foster our professional learning community as we move from summer to fall, we have planned out a series of virtual teacher “dinners,” where programming will allow for community-building, best practice-sharing, and a chance to connect with Mikva DC staff.

As we move from summer into an unchartered new school year, we will be continuing to partner with our teachers to find out just what Mikva DC’s 2020 Project Soapbox will look like, sound like, and feel like. However, what we are certain of is that there is no stopping youth voices, and that DC’s young people need a microphone and a platform now more than ever. Project Soapbox speeches will still be delivered by middle and high school students from all eight Wards of the District, and we will be showcasing the finalists through an online platform.

We look forward to continuing to connect young people from across the city, as well as bringing youth voices directly to adult community members and elected officials. We may not have an auditorium this year, but we have this city’s leading community experts and they deserve to be heard.

If you are interested in learning more or serving as a Project Soapbox adult ally to support and celebrate DC youth voice this fall through our Project Soapbox program, please email Mikva Challenge DC’s Issues to Action Program Director, Justine Hipsky, at