In Rappahannock, the challenge of charity is finding ways to help others while avoiding cultural fault lines.

For Foothills Forum

The white-haired man, a Food Pantry regular, is headed out the front door, a box of food in his arms, when Mimi Forbes calls out to him.

“Are you okay on wood for this weekend,” she asks. “They’re talking about another storm.”

“I don’t have room in the car,” he answers.

When Forbes suggests that maybe he could come back later in the day to get some free firewood, a younger woman nearby, herself a Pantry shopper, joins the conversation.

“Where do you live?” she asks. “I have a truck outside. I can bring the wood later this afternoon if you tell me where you live.”

“That would be great if you could,” he says.

Forbes, the Pantry’s director and unofficial social maven, jumps in to close the deal. “Get your car loaded,” she tells the man, “and then you two talk.”

The exchange lasts barely a minute, but the simple act of charity reflects something bigger, a spirit of generosity that typifies what many would say is Rappahannock at its best.

It’s not that surprising that this would happen at the Rappahannock Food Pantry, a place where helping others plays out in fundamental and unassuming ways.

“We don’t judge,” Forbes said. “That’s very important. You don’t know what’s happened in someone’s life.”

Uneasy alliance

Strange as it may sound, kindness can get complicated. That’s true especially in a community like Rappahannock, where many hope that if the bucolic views can survive, so can its rural soul. But that’s becoming more fanciful as the county goes through a demographic and economic transformation that has clearly made it older, but also has widened an income and culture gap.

The Series:
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.

Which, in turn, can make doing good a touchy matter. There are insinuations that fancy fundraisers “aren’t the Rappahannock way.” Concerns that “Benevolent Fund” might sound “too patronizing.” Worries that events can seem designed only for what’s been described as “PLUs” — “People Like Us.”

“There’s this uneasy alliance between people who have lived here a long time and folks who are coming in, people who have chosen this place,” said Matthew Black, president of the Rappahannock Association for the Arts and Community (RAAC). “They bring a lot of money. They generate taxes. They donate their time and energy.

“But how do you have that without attitudes starting to rub up against each other. Those are the fault lines.”

Few issues have illustrated that split in the community more than the recent contentious public battle over the proposed bike trail between the county’s two public schools.

The Food Pantry, though, manages to straddle those rifts as well as any local nonprofit. It helps that its mission — providing food to those in need — is so clear-cut and basic. For a few hours every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, the volunteers who show up to stock shelves, unload trucks or fold cardboard boxes share the same cramped space with those who come in a little later to pick up food. Often, they get to know each other.

“People come in here and tell me their stories and it can make me cry,” said Forbes. “Some people just don’t get a break.”

On busy days, more than 30 shoppers come by — Forbes says that’s often on the Tuesdays when food arrives from Trader Joe’s. She estimates that the Pantry, just west of Sperryville on Route 211, now serves about 200 Rappahannock families, totaling more than 700 residents, or about a tenth of the county’s population. While an individual must have a monthly income of less than $1,158 to take food donated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — for a family of four, it’s $3,138 a month — Forbes stressed that everything else, from the fresh vegetables to the freezers full of meat to the pet food, is available to anyone who lives in Rappahannock.

Some people are still too proud to come there, Forbes acknowledged, but from her welcoming post at her desk by the front door, she sees what it means to those who do. “It’s made me more grateful for everything I do have,” she said. “And for this, for what we can do for people . . . I finally found my niche.”

Deep roots

The Rappahannock Lions Club likewise has carved its niche here, one with roots dating back more than 60 years. Its purple and yellow tent has become a fixture at big community events, and it has a long history of supporting local 4-H clubs, sports teams, Boy and Girls clubs, Scout troops, scholarships and the Senior Center. The money it generates from its online “Shop Like a Lion,” in conjunction with, is dedicated to the county’s volunteer fire and rescue companies.

Its members play a key role in staging “Rappahannock Night” at the annual Camp Fantastic for kids with cancer. For years, the group has also provided free vision and hearing tests for students here. It has ties to the Rappahannock County Garden Club, another longstanding community organization. One of the Lions’ main fundraising campaigns, built around making and selling apple butter, pays homage to Rappahannock’s agricultural heritage.

In short, the Lions Club is deeply woven into the community, a nonprofit that fits the old school model of serving all local families and groups in modest, but meaningful ways. “I think of the Lions as a kind of the United Way of the county. We support a wide range of groups,” said Jim Manwaring, the group’s secretary. “It’s nice when someone comes up to you and says, ‘You’re the ones who did vision testing on my daughter and found a problem.’ It’s gratifying to help that way.”

Because it has no overhead costs — its administrative expenses are covered through membership dues — the money the Lions Club raises can go a long way. It doesn’t need big donors or high-bid auctions. Instead it relies on many smaller contributions. That’s likely another factor in its broad appeal.

“A lot of what the Lions does goes back to community — the apple butter project, the eye exams. They try to be all-inclusive and incorporate everybody,” said Rappahannock native Beverly Atkins, who has coordinated the Camp Fantastic program for many years. “The more things we have that do that, maybe the better chance we’re going to have to come back and be a community, and not be such a divided whatever we are.”

Staying connected

It’s an oft-repeated perception about the state of nonprofits in Rappahannock — that, as some have grown larger and more structured and have established programs that require significant annual funding, they have lost touch with parts of the community.

“You’ll hear people say Headwaters is not about the community anymore,” said Jane Bowling-Wilson, who now runs the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation, but was Headwaters’ executive director from 2011 to 2015. “But Headwaters runs a mentoring program. They started a farm-to-table program. They run a career and college access program. A primary reading program. An after-school program.

“Maybe you don’t like the people on its board,” she added. “But what they run for children are really good programs.”

To sustain those programs, along with the scholarships it provides to local students, Headwaters relies heavily on its annual Taste of Rappahannock (TOR) dinner, the biggest fundraiser in the county. It’s a pricey event — an individual ticket can cost $200 — and through sponsorships and auctions, it can raise a lot of money. In 2017, a particularly good year, the dinner grossed about $220,000, with a net close to $180,000. Last year, the gross was almost 25 percent lower — about $167,000. Expenses again came to about $40,000. (As a point of comparison, gross receipts for other big fundraisers, including the Child Care and Learning Center’s Garden Party, the Rappahannock Benevolent Fund’s dinner, and Pantry Day for the Food Pantry tend to fall within the $40,000 to $60,000 range.)

A really successful TOR can bring clear benefits, such as more scholarships for students who otherwise couldn’t afford to pay for college. So, one of its top priorities is to make sure the event optimizes the opportunity to attract and solicit support from wealthy local benefactors. One of the challenges for an organization like Headwaters is to do that without appearing exclusive.

Cindy Colson, deputy director of strategic partnerships for the Center for Nonprofit Excellence in Charlottesville, said it’s a common dilemma. “When we talk to nonprofits about doing events, we ask them, ‘What’s the intent?’ If it’s a fundraiser, you need to be sure you’re raising money,” she said. “Or it could be a community awareness event that has some money coming in. But that’s very different from a fundraiser. If you try to do too many things, it’s hard to measure success. And, it’s hard to do.”

It’s something RAAC President Matthew Black appreciates. The group’s annual fundraiser — the Fall Art Tour — is largely geared to people from outside Rappahannock, and last year, it attracted more than 1,000 visitors, according to Black. The event netted between $25,000 and $30,000, he said, money channeled into the Claudia Mitchell Arts Fund, which provides grants to local artists and arts organizations.

At the same time, though, he said he understands the importance of looking for ways to broaden the appeal of the events RAAC sponsors — from movies to the regular Friday talks at the county library. Ideally, that can help bring diverse parts of Rappahannock together.

“I’ve become a great believer in the arts as a way of creating and sustaining community,” Black said. “It can help people meet their neighbors. We’re creating a watering hole where people can congregate.

“I think it’s important to our quality of life to have occasions to be creative and participate in art together. My hope is that it creates glue that slides around the county and helps bring people together.”

It gets complicated

Black has no illusions about how much impact an organization like RAAC can have in addressing some of the county’s more deep-seated problems, such as income inequality or the shortage of affordable housing. “I do think RAAC does a lot for the quality of life here,” he said. “But we’re not set up to deal with matters like hunger or lack of jobs.”

Those are complex and daunting issues, and while nonprofits like the Rappahannock Benevolent Fund and Rapp at Home are taking on some aspects of them — such as senior poverty, a decaying housing stock and social isolation — it’s not without complications and some risk.

These are multilayered problems and often deeply personal ones that require a heavy dose of commitment and judgment.

“One of the hardest things is trying to figure out what needs a volunteer can address,” said Carol Simpson, executive director of Aging Together, a regional organization that focuses on the challenges of older adults. “There are liability issues we never used to worry about in the old days.”

She said training for volunteers has become more vital. “When they go to visit someone, they may encounter hoarding. They may encounter medication issues, all kinds of things they’re not expecting,” Simpson said. “So, even if a person is willing to let us into their house, then what do you do? What do you do if you find out somebody’s being neglected? Or they’re not eating properly. We have to have a lot of layers of protection in place for the volunteers.

“In rural areas, a lot of people are struggling to make ends meet,” she added. “When a person is struggling like that and they have health problems, it can almost be overwhelming when it comes to what their needs are.”

Dealing with burnout

Tackling such formidable challenges clearly raises the bar for volunteers, no matter how dedicated. But it also would require nonprofits to view their volunteers with more sensitivity. Lynn Lauritzen runs the PATH Foundation’s Volunteer Hub, and for a decade prior to taking that position, she oversaw the volunteers working at Fauquier Hospital. They are, she insists, a group that cannot be taken for granted.

“There needs to be an effort to understand what makes them tick,” she said. “It’s trying to figure out who that person is before they even come in the door. What do they really want to do? Then it’s a matter of paying attention to them. Can you sense when they’re starting to burn out? Can you sense when they need something else? Can you sense that they’re not involved enough? Or too much?

“But a lot of organizations still don’t think volunteers need that kind of attention. They’re lulled into thinking, ‘They’re just volunteers. They want to be here.’ But I believe it’s not really different from having a paid workforce. You have to invest time and care and attention, and you’ll get twofold back.”

Lauritzen also offered her take on another concern of most nonprofits these days — how to keep refilling the pipeline of volunteers as older ones drop out. It’s not just a matter of demographics where there’s a shortage of younger people around who can volunteer. Based on her experience, she said, motivations have changed.

“So, how do you grab the next generation? I think maybe there’s a different lure,” she said. “They need to feel that what they do has meaning. They need to feel that they’re getting something back. Just the act of doing service isn’t enough anymore. They need to feel that from the experience, they’re being enriched. That they can walk away and talk about it and tell a story. That’s important. Otherwise, they won’t come back.”

A dance step

Last October, Rappahannock had what was billed as the first Community Square Dance. There was nothing fancy about it, just a simple, old-fashioned night of dosey-does. About 75 people showed up that night at the Sperryville Fire Hall, including kids and some folks in their 80s.

The dance was co-sponsored by two county nonprofits, Rapp at Home and RAAC. There was a modest admission fee, but it wasn’t about fundraising. Rather it was meant to be a small, first step to start connecting threads in a community where the social fabric has become more tattered.

“The thing that made it a big success is that it pulled in people of a wide age range, and it wasn’t just Rapp at Home people,” said Sharon Pierce, Rapp at Home’s president. “It was a community thing. We used to do this more in Rappahannock. We would have events that were fun and not complicated. People broke out of their silos.”

It was a good party. Another one is planned for May.

A Path Forward

The PATH Foundation — formerly the Fauquier Health Foundation — has been a major philanthropic force in the region for almost five years now. It focuses on providing grants to improve the health and wellness of residents of Fauquier, northern Culpeper and Rappahannock counties, with a priority in addressing access to care, childhood wellness, mental health and senior services.

Since May 2014, it has awarded $5.268 million in grants to nonprofits or organizations in Rappahannock and to others based elsewhere that serve county residents, such as Lord Fairfax Community College, the Fauquier Free Clinic, Aging Together and VolTran, the volunteer transportation service. The largest amount of grant money in Rappahannock has gone to the county’s school district, primarily to sustain its Commit to Be Fit program.

Here are the total amounts of PATH grants most directly serving Rappahannock residents, going back to 2014. It includes some already awarded in 2019.

Lord Fairfax Community College: $1.18 million

Fauquier Free Clinic: $1.17 million

Northern Piedmont Community Foundation: $1.1 million

Rappahannock County Public Schools: $682,735 (Mainly Commit to Be Fit)

Child Care and Learning Center: $184,272

Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services: $157,700

Rapp at Home: $154,890

Aging Together: $147,000

Headwaters: $73,900

Hero’s Bridge: $70,068

VolTran: $70,041

RappU: $69,465

Rappahannock County High School: $38,500

Foothills Forum: $32,500

Friends of the Rappahannock: $25,250

Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection: $24,150

Rappahannock County Recreational Facilities Authority: $22,490

Rappahannock Goodwill Industries: $20,404

Kid Pan Alley: $20,000

Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office: $10,649.95

Belle Meade Montessori School: $8,324

Rappahannock County 4-H: $3,000

Rappahannock Nature Camp: $3,000

Total: $5.268 million

Source: PATH Foundation

Doer Profile: Frank Fishback

Chair, Amissville Community Foundation (ACF); Pastor of Long Branch Baptist Church, The Plains; cemetarian with Moser Funeral Home, former missionary. Moved to Rappahannock from Warrenton in 1980.

The Spark: “I was called to do missionary work overseas at a young age. My faith and adherence to Christian principles led me to my community involvement in Rappahannock. I believe in the old adage ‘Practice what you preach’.”

Proudest Achievement: “ACF sponsors Project Christmas which provides food baskets, flowers and fruit to more than 100 households in need. It makes a small but important difference in so many lives. We have been able to grow our group of volunteers to more than 50 people.”

Biggest Challenge: “Fundraising for the Christmas Project. Canned and boxed food are donated by the Amissville churches, but we also need fresh food, produce and flowers, and that takes money. ACF is now a 501(c)(3) charity so donations are tax deductible. Many of our contributions come from the annual Amissville Community Thanksgiving service.”

Why It Matters: “It is the connection with people. Volunteer activities connect people with people. In today’s world, with technology and social media platforms, we are losing our personal one-on-one relationships. Project Christmas gives us an opportunity to personally touch someone and hopefully with a little bit of God’s spirit.”

Favorite Rappahannock Treasure: “The rural, bucolic nature of our county. I like to tell people we don’t have a traffic light, no malls or big box stores. Rural folks have a tradition of caring and looking out for their neighbors. I hope we can keep it that way.”

— Bob Hurley

Doer Profile: Roberta Anderson

Former Board Member, Friends of the Rappahannock County Library, former Board Member and Chair Library Board of Trustees, former Board Member and Chair of Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services Board. A resident of Woodville, she’s lived in Rappahannock since 1968.

The Spark: “When we moved here, I wanted to contribute and be an active member of the community. I love to read and thought I would match that interest by volunteering at the county library. At that time, it was in the Washington Town Hall.”

Proudest Achievement: “Getting the new library built in 1991 without any debt. I was the construction coordinator, visiting the building site almost daily, but it took a real team effort with the Friends of Library, the Library Board and many other involved citizens.”

Biggest Challenge: “For me, it was where to focus my energy. There are so many worthwhile causes in Rappahannock aimed at improving the quality of life here. You must be careful not take on too much, otherwise you might not be as effective as you’d like to be.”

Why It Matters: “Volunteering is about giving back. When we moved here, I could have gotten a paying job, but I wanted to do things for others. I was fortunate to work with wonderful people and get involved in projects that I think make a difference.”

Favorite Rappahannock Treasure: “The serenity of the place — the peace and quiet. I can look out my window and see mountains, deer, turkeys, all kinds of wildlife and birds. I hope it stays that way.”

— Bob Hurley

Amissville’s holiday tradition of giving

One of Rappahannock’s longest-running, all-hands-on-deck volunteer traditions is the Amissville Christmas holiday gift basket project. The Amissville Community Foundation is the driving force, enabling dozens of volunteers, young and old, to purchase, assemble and distribute generous gift boxes to more than 100 deserving families.

This past Christmas, Foothills Forum commissioned Roger Piantadosi and Luke Christopher of Synergist Media to tag along and produce this video taking you behind the scenes. Take a look and see how this wonderful project is done.

Want to Volunteer?

Here are some options.

Amissville Community Foundation: Volunteers focus on helping people in the Amissville community, including Project Christmas. Call 540-937-4910.

Child Care and Learning Center: Volunteers can help maintain the Center’s garden or work with students in the after-school program. Call 540-675-3237 for more details.

Headwaters: Offers volunteering opportunities, including student mentoring, through several programs at the county’s public schools. Call 540-987-3322 to find out about current options.

Rapp at Home: Opportunities for volunteer drivers and to help seniors in the community. Call 540-937-4663.

Rappahannock Association for Arts and Community (RAAC): It’s an all-volunteer organization and there are opportunities to help with events and activities. Call 800-695-6075.

Rappahannock County Park: The park offers Second Saturday volunteer workdays to control invasives in the wooded areas of the park and perimeters and to cultivate and plant native plants that will support an overall healthy ecosystem in the park, for enjoyment and education.

Rappahannock Food Pantry: Opportunities to help out at the Pantry or as volunteer drivers. Call Mimi Forbes at 540-987-5090.

Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection: Opportunities related to environmental events and activities. Call 540-675-7537.

Rappahannock Lions Club: Members work on a number of community service projects. Call 540-675-2001.

Rappahannock Senior Center: Volunteer driving opportunities. Call Darcy Canton at 540-987-3638.

Fire and Rescue Companies

  • Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue: 540-937-5125
  • Castleton Community Volunteer Fire Company: 540-937-4110
  • Chester Gap Volunteer Fire Department: 540-635-5482
  • Flint Hill Volunteer Fire and Rescue: 540-675-3286
  • Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department: 540-987-8124
  • Sperryville Volunteer Rescue Squad: 540-987-8085
  • Washington Volunteer Fire and Rescue: 540-675-3615

— Randy Rieland