Growing RVA kids with the help of FRIENDS

The organization dates back to 1871, has been “adopted” by Shaka Smart, and is changing the lives of Richmond’s youth.

Lucy Goode Brooks, one of the city’s most enduring civic leaders, looked out over Richmond 140 years ago and saw destitution and despair.

“You’ve got the end of the Civil War and the chaos that that created in this area, as well as the entire southern part of the United States,” said David Young, executive director at FRIENDS Association for Children, recounting the Richmond that Brooks lived in. “You’ve got the end of slavery with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. You’ve got a lot of families that are just broken as a result of war, as a result of slavery, and how it’s impacted the community.”

So when Lucy Goode Brooks, the daughter of a slave and an unknown white man, looked out over Richmond, she saw “hundreds, if not thousands, of children abandoned, walking the streets, and looking for food and shelter and their families,” Young said.

Brooks implored the Quaker Society of Friends, Ladies Sewing Circle for Charitable Work, and the Cedar Creek Meeting of the Society of Friends to help her create an orphanage. She then successfully lobbied the City for land in present-day Gilpin to build her home. In 1871, Friends’ Asylum for Colored Orphans opened its doors.

“Where our offices are today is on the same piece of land that was given to Lucy Goode Brooks over 140 years ago,” said David Young, who oversees the “asylum,”1 now known simply as the FRIENDS Association for Children.

Just like its name, FRIENDS’ mission has evolved as the needs of the city evolved. Young estimates that sometime between the 1900s – 1930s, FRIENDS focused more on adoption and foster services, likely due to the devastation wreaked by The Great Depression.

The charity’s mission would change again in the 1960s and 1970s. “Early childhood education become more of a focus as it was more of an impact with the change and transition in the schooling systems,” Young said. Childhood education is what FRIENDS continues to do. “We’re more focused on early childhood education, youth and childhood development, and providing assistance to families and children in that fashion.”

Having once provided adoption services, FRIENDS current community work has helped positively change and shape lives, and also earned a virtual “adoption” by the headmaster of HAVOC!

“Stimulating” the community

“Thousand of brains cells are developing in children in their first few months of life,” Young said, summarizing studies that inspire and reinforce FRIENDS’ child development program. Located at both FRIENDS centers (Jackson Ward and Church Hill) the development program takes children as young as six weeks old.

“We want to take advantage of stimulating as many of those brain cells as we can, as early as we can,” Young said. That’s because the populations that FRIENDS serve are typically low-income,2 and studies show that children in low-income families are exposed to less of the stimulation that’s required to foster appropriate brain development. Stimulation–textures, sounds, visuals–is so simple, yet so vital to childhood development. “That’s what puts a child on more of an equal playing field when they enter school and they progress through their academic careers.”

FRIENDS provides its child development program to children up to 12 years-old, with the older children exposed to elements that foster social, emotional, and cognitive abilities.

For its older children, FRIENDS’ youth development program welcomes students before and after school, as well as during summer months. While most kids live in Jackson Ward and Church Hill, children across the region attend its supplemental programs, Young said.

Music education is a key element in both the child and youth development programs, with music incorporated into the curriculums of toddlers. “[Music] has a direct impact in increasing [child] performance in mathematics and other subjects,” Young said. Musicians from the Richmond Symphony, VCU School of Music, and even area high schools donate an hour each week of their time to tutor and instruct FRIENDS children.

Serving upwards of 1,100 kids at both facilities each year is an ambitious mission. It’s also a costly one, especially since FRIENDS doesn’t charge for its services. “One of our largest and longest supporters of FRIENDS is the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg,” Young said. FRIENDS also relies on funding provided by foundations, grants, community events, and individual donations.

But one of the most successful gifts for the organization has come from VCU coach Shaka Smart and his wife, Maya. Young said the Smarts were interested in working with local charities and organizations after arriving in Richmond in 2009. “Their interest is not just children, but helping children have an opportunity to be successful in whatever they do and wherever they come from,” Young said. The Smarts grew attached to FRIENDS soon after Maya toured its facilities.

“We have been extremely fortunate over the last year and a half or so to have been almost adopted by Coach Shaka Smart and his wife…who have put together some fundraising activities, visibility, and awareness that have helped generate resources and funding for us to help build our brand, and brand awareness, across Central Virginia,” Young said.

Just last year, the Smarts helped raise nearly $25,000 for FRIENDS through a Bonfire Funds T-shirt campaign. The VCU coach could also win the organization $100,000 if he wins the ESPN Coaches Charity Challenge. VCU fans can learn more about Smart’s involvement with FRIENDS and vote for the coach on

Having “adopted” FRIENDS, the Smarts are two of the newest members of the organization’s family. It’s a family that stretches back decades.

An “infectious situation”

When asked why FRIENDS has endured when other charities haven’t, Young says the organization’s ability to adapt to Richmond’s needs has kept FRIENDS relevant. “We have evolved with the needs of this community and the needs of the families that we served over time,” he said.

“This community has embraced this organization over time and realized that not every unfortunate situation is the fault of the individual experiencing it,” Young said. “And sometimes we as a community, as a city, have to do our part to try to give people an opportunity, give them a means and a vehicle to improve things for themselves.”

One of the most telling metrics in describing FRIENDS success and positive influence on the community is the collective family it’s grown over the years.

“We have children whose parents were FRIENDS children 30 years ago. Some [former FRIENDS children] are our staff now” and have been staff for decades, Young said. “It’s just an infectious situation that we have going on here.”

That connection many Richmonders have fostered with FRIENDS, and vice versa, creates an even more special place for children to learn and grow, Young said. “That kind of continuity only helps to enhance that relationship that the child has with the teachers, their growth and development, relationships with the families,” he said.

That continuity also helps to enhance the relationship FRIENDS has with its immediate surroundings. Its Jackson Ward location, and central office, is located on the edge of Gilpin Court, a public housing community many in Richmond identify with violence.

“I had to come to grips with the stereotype, the perceptions of this immediate area,” Young said, referring to when he became executive director over one year ago. “But this is where some of the greatest needs are.”

He said generation to generation of families have lived in Gilpin, and “I’ve come to learn that, unfortunately, the needs have also carried over generation to generation.”

But these families, whether in Gilpin, Jackson Ward, or Church Hill are not blots to be scrubbed away.

“These are living, breathing, caring, nurturing families whose parents want the same things everybody wants for their children,” Young said. “These are families that need us, and I’m glad we’re here.”

photo courtesy of FRIENDS

  1. In Brooks’ time, an asylum was considered a shelter. 
  2. Young stressed that many low-income parents FRIENDS helps are underemployed or are paid too little, and not stereotypical “freeloaders.” 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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