Walking Humbly In The Halls

Richmond’s Micah Initiative: What Makes a Successful Partnership

Uniting faith-based communities across denominations is no easy task. Uniting faith-based communities across religion to accomplish a single task takes work. Uniting 130 faith-based communities across 23 public elementary schools takes the unique dedication, organizational structure, and intentional ecumenical theology of Richmond’s Micah Initiative now in its fifteenth year.

All Our Children, has a deep understanding of why communities of faith are called to action in schools. But sometimes it is difficult for those outside this work to understand the imperative. Coordinators at Richmond Hill, the non-profit base for the Micah Initiative, perhaps explains it best:

Churches, synagogues, and mosques themselves are permanent community institutions and can provide steady support to other permanent community institutions. The faith community is committed to overcoming barriers of race, jurisdiction, economics, and class. Lay leaders of the faith community are central to the establishment of public education in Virginia.
This understanding of community wide commitment to ending racial and economic injustice and taking communal responsibility for city-wide education is a large part of Micah’s sustained success. But it takes more than dedicated morals and passionate prayer to establish and sustain progress in in-need schools.

Micah as an ecumenical organization may be a unique model, however they pride themselves in being a partner among many in Richmond and consider partnership a cornerstone of their work. A Richmond Public School report estimates that annual volunteer hours donated to the schools represent a financial contribution worth over $2 million dollars each year.

Micah provides volunteers for elementary school classrooms — story-time readers, mentors, after-school tutors, lunch buddies, classroom assistants, pen-pals, and more. And Micah and RPS reinforce the value of these programs to school culture by working with on-site volunteer coordinators provided by the schools. These coordinators help place, serve and coordinate the hundreds of volunteers coming and going each day. They are a paid, full or part-time employee working specifically to support volunteers and students within the school site.

These programs are not just about building in-school success for students, Micah cares for building a “wholistic child.” The organization views its summer and full-year engagement programs as essential to their sustained presence in Richmond. “Our summer programs send kids to places outside their own neighborhood, to many different camps, including outdoor camps. Nature offers new experiences and they love it. Year after year the want to go back. Which not only builds new experience, but it builds leadership. It’s the kids who in the end help with the sustainability of the program–because we invest in developing them as leaders and whole people,” says Micah Initiative director, Tiffany Hall.

Part of this “whole child” model includes matching mentors with students starting in kindergarten and having them follow their students through until high-school graduation. Micah believes that these relationships that mentors build with a child over years of growth inevitably and equitably transform both their lives. Tiffany herself has served as a mentor and also does classroom visits and reads with students. “We are a smile, positive reinforcement,” she says. “I think one of the most important parts of mentoring is having someone who is looking out for you. And it’s not just us looking out for the students. If you’re late or not there one week, the kids, they will look for you.”

Deeply connected and well-trained volunteers help sustain the success and longevity of relationships between classrooms, teachers, students, and volunteers. Each fall the Micah Initiative starts off with a kick-off event for its 1000+ volunteers. And Micah draws its volunteers from low and high places–A federal court judge and an everyday parishioner can share the same experience and have the same affect on a public school student. Tiffany reflected at the All Our Children conference earlier this year that she believes this kick off event in part leads to the success of each school year. The yearly event includes keynote speakers from greater Richmond as well as four separate seminars dedicated to preparing volunteers for various aspects of working in the schools. During one of the breakout sessions during our own conference, Tiffany spoke broadly on the many efforts that Micah has to engage volunteers in their work and to support them as much as the volunteers themselves support the students. Having volunteers who feel supported and essential to the program and community is a key component for lasting success.

One volunteer, Don Cowles, has served as a mentor with students in Richmond for many years. He is a foundational member of Micah and was one of the first individuals to step forward in All Our Children’s earliest gatherings. When asked about what makes Micah so successful, he too quoted the strong foundational principles, but also acknowledged that a partnership is always two-sided. “It’s all about personal relationships, whether with a student, classroom teacher or principal and (2) it’s about serving with humility (e.g., never do for others what they can do for themselves). The story of Jesus’ interaction with blind Bartimaeus offers a good model–“What do you want me to do for you?” Don said in an emailed statement. Tiffany Hall echoed his sentiment saying, “It’s about what we can do for each other. The students offer you a different perspective on your own personal life. They make us laugh. They have so much life.”

There’s no denying that there is a lot of work happening every day with the Micah Initiative. From their hardworking director managing 23 sites, to the school coordinators, to the dozens of mentors out working in the schools, it is clear that it is dedication to the school and its student that drives all participants in this unique organization and has helped grow Micah from their small beginnings to the boisterous programs of today. But more than the work itself, the spirit of trust and giving relationships is what has propelled the organization and its partners to become respected, relied on, and loved in the schools. “Thinking individually and at large has changed the culture of what happens here,” Tiffany says. “We are saying that there is joy in this school.” And for fifteen years Micah has continued engaging faith-communities, students, and teachers by reinforcing and sharing the joy that is learning and building Richmond’s youth.