City of Possibility
When Brandie Pitt meets other educators at conferences, she tends to get the same kind of question: “So you teach in Petersburg. Well, what is that like?”
“It’s almost like people are always expecting you to say the worst because of what they see on the surface or what they hear on the news,” says Brandie, who taught in the Petersburg public school system for seven years and became the senior program director of the city’s Boys & Girls Club in January. “What they don’t understand is that at the heart of it, the people who live in Petersburg are people too, and the children who are here are just like children everywhere.”
Located 25 miles south of Richmond along the Appomattox River, the historic city of Petersburg was a thriving trade, transportation, and manufacturing hub for 300 years. Prior to the Civil War, it was also home to the largest community of free blacks in America.
But serious trouble began for Petersburg in the 1950s. Plans to build routes 95 and 85 through the city seeded potential for further prosperity, but the highways bypassed the downtown area, stunting the city’s economic growth. Soon after, the desegregation of public schools led white residents fearing integration to abandon Petersburg for less-diverse counties nearby. In 1985, the tobacco manufacturer Brown & Williamson closed its Petersburg plant, causing the city’s population to take another major dip. With few jobs to offer and a diminished population that lacked a critical mass of higher-income residents, the city entered an economic decline. As of 2016, the poverty rate was 30%—almost double that of the rest of the state.
Yet as the site of both the nation’s first public African American university and one of the earliest civil rights sit-ins, Petersburg has a history shot through with hope and determination that carry through to today. This is especially apparent at the Petersburg Boys & Girls Club, which shares its space with the alternative school Blandford Academy. Outside the building, picnic tables offering a space for socializing and relaxing were built by Club members themselves, and a plot of land nearby is slated for a sensory garden geared toward members with autism. A mural spreading across the walls inside evokes colorful waves and leaves, and at the front desk, a massive sheet of paper crowded with children’s handprints reads, I Got Skills.
For children who have grown up with Petersburg’s complicated legacy—and for the city as a whole—that affirmation is vital.
Just as she’s used to questions based on negative assumptions about the city she works in and loves, Brandie is familiar with misconceptions about the Boys & Girls Club. “We’re not babysitting,” she says. “We’re taking a nontraditional approach to developing skills in our young people.”
The Petersburg Club was established in 1997, during a period when the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond was looking to open more locations that could support historically marginalized communities. The Petersburg Club has had many homes since then, but always in buildings where classrooms had to be shared. The move to its current location inside Blandford Academy, where spaces belong to the Club alone, brought with it an exciting new opportunity.
“We’re not babysitting. We’re taking a nontraditional approach to developing skills in our young people.”
— Brandie Pitt, Senior Program Director, Petersburg Club
“I have the freedom to say to my staff, ‘This is your space, make it your own,” Brandie says. “So there’s that connection to it. It can be as simple as starting with ‘This is our door or our bulletin board, what do we want it to look like?’”
Club members and staff also have the power to shape the neighborhood itself. Even if their children aren’t yet members of the Club, families from the area often bring them over to play basketball or hang out at the picnic tables. One neighbor even helped prepare the land for the sensory garden.
“So we connect to our space internally,” Brandie says. “But as a whole, we’re connecting with the community around us as well.”
The Blandford neighborhood fits into the larger story of Petersburg. “You see the obvious impact of poverty, low income, low education levels, and other things that are barriers to economic stability,” Brandie says. Many Club members have parents who are young, single, or working multiple jobs. Others are raised by their grandparents. As a result, many parents simply don’t have time to help their kids with homework or take them to sports practice. “It’s not that they don’t want the very best for their kids,” Brandie says. “But at the end of the day, they may have to work.”
Ken Pritchett, chair of the Petersburg public school board, sent both of his daughters to the Club. Then as now, he was working from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. as a privacy and release of information officer at Central State Hospital, and his wife was working swing shifts in a local factory. Ken says the Club was the perfect solution to the problem of finding childcare and homework assistance.
“There are amazing, real-life learning experiences happening here.”
— Brandie Pitt, Senior Program Director, Petersburg Club
“It’s an affordable place in Petersburg to enroll your child, and it’s a safe place for your child to be,” he says. “It’s a safe learning environment, and it’s also a safe environment to play. You keep hearing me say ‘safe’ because they're not in the streets, and that’s one thing we want to do—keep our young people out of the streets, because the streets are just so dangerous.”
Brandie acknowledges the importance of creating a space that offers both physical and emotional security for Petersburg’s young people. But she is quick to add that the Club does much more than that. “We’re thinking about developing a well-rounded individual,” she says. “It’s not just a place where parents drop their kids off in the evening. There are amazing, real-life learning experiences happening here.”
Youth choice and youth voice
Music playing, an air-hockey puck clacking back and forth, children’s voices raised in lively conversation—walking down the hallway of the Petersburg Club right after school, these are some of the sounds you might hear. For the first hour of each day at the Club, members take part in an open session called “me time.”
“You may want to do homework, you may want to play games, you may want to build with blocks,” Brandie says. “We want them to customize their experience: We believe in youth choice and youth voice.”
Once they’ve had some time to themselves, members can participate in a range of more structured activities, many of which are made possible by partnerships with local organizations. They might use the sports facilities at the YMCA, receive homework help from a Virginia State University work study student, or take a yoga class through a partnership with Yoga One, a local studio. The Club has also joined with 4H to offer health courses and even with local Shriners, who have adopted the Club and mentored students.
Within these organizations, the attitude is “all hands on deck, let’s all help each other,” Brandie says. “We could look at the Y as a competing organization, and they could look at us the same way. But we’re not in competition because at the end of the day, it’s all about the kids. I just wish people could get the positive side of what’s going on here and see what the entities in our community are trying to do. They’re working together to move our youth forward.”
The Club’s collaborative efforts have caught the attention of local foundations, which offer another key type of partnership: one that’s defined by financial support. Among the Club’s devoted benefactors are The Cameron Foundation and the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg.
“It’s a reflection of [the Club’s] wisdom that they can leverage all of these resources to benefit the kids,” says Risha Stebbins, senior program officer and communications coordinator at The Cameron Foundation. Committed to funding youth and family services in the region, among other vital causes, the foundation has supported the Club for nearly 15 years. “The core match between us and the Boys & Girls Club is that we understand the importance of investing in youth development,” she says.
Stebbins, who lives in Petersburg and occasionally bikes around the Blandford neighborhood, fondly recalls attending a holiday party at the Club where members were crafting pipe-cleaner ornaments. Her memories from that day aren’t tied to any one child, she says: “It was the atmosphere. You see so many children really thriving when you visit.” The blue and silver bauble she took home with her still hangs in her front hall, a daily reminder of her love for her community and the children who call it home.
In addition to connecting with local organizations year-round, Club members mingle with students from other school districts during the summer months, encountering new people and making new friends. Ken says that opportunity was important for his daughters. “Even during their elementary years, children are able to create those bonds, so they’re building relationships across the city,” he says. “That to me is the core value of the Club: connecting families and connecting their children.”
Families are invited to the Club for performances, sports games, and “reunions” where they have the chance to eat, relax, and get their picture taken together. Ken remembers watching his daughters, Ebonie and Faith, perform together in a talent show.
“I could see that it built their confidence,” he says. “It was preparing them for high school, preparing them for college.” Ebonie, who now works as a police officer in Washington, D.C., went on to get her bachelor’s degree in sociology and her master’s in cybersecurity. Faith, who now works as an account expert at T-Mobile, attended Virginia State University and returned to volunteer with the Club while she was a student. “She felt that she needed to give back to a place that had given her hope and courage,” says Ken.
The aim of the Petersburg Club is to do just that, Brandie says: encourage students to take what they learn and use it to lift up the people around them. “We want members to walk away with skills that are transferring,” she says. “I don't want you to just know about respect and empathy inside the Club, I want you to go home and talk about these things to your family because that means not only are we impacting you positively, we’re impacting someone else. The whole community is changed in that way.”
Seeing the good
When Josie joined the Youth Action Board, she saw a side of her city that surprised her. Formulated to develop a proposal for a grant that would help address youth homelessness in the Petersburg area, the board is composed of young people between the ages of 14 and 24. Two-thirds of those children have experienced homelessness themselves, and as Josie quickly learned, some of them were her friends from school.
“It broke my heart,” she says. “I was like, ‘Are you serious? You come to school every day with a smile on your face. I never would've thought that about someone as strong as you.’”
Brandie, who nominated Josie for the board, has been impressed with her sensitivity and open-mindedness. “Josie puts a lot of thought into how she treats people,” Brandie says. “She is very much that child who tries to see the good in everything.”
Josie joined the Club four years ago, when she was 13 years old. At the time, she was very reserved. “I was kind of closed in,” she says. “I was really, really shy. Like really shy.”
Through the Club, she’s met more people from her community—and learned some unexpected things about those she already knew. In the process, she’s gained more confidence in herself. She particularly remembers a visit from Girls for a Change, a nonprofit group seeking to empower girls of color in Central Virginia. As she sat listening to both young women from the group and her fellow Club members discuss their experiences with bullying and abuse, she was struck by their bravery. Josie, who has been the victim of bullying as well, says she’s found some of that same courage in herself. “I’ve learned how to stand my ground, how not to give up because of someone telling me I’m not good enough,” she says.
“I’ve learned how to stand my ground, how not to give up because of someone telling me I’m not good enough.”
— Josie, Petersburg Club Member
Since joining the Club, Josie has become a straight-A student and been accepted to the Richard Bland dual enrollment program, which offers students a way to earn college credit during their last two years of high school. She’s also become a Certified Nursing Assistant, although she says her long-term plan is to become a dermatologist.
“If you’re doing your job well then you’re working yourself out of the job.”
— Brandie Pitt, Senior Program Director, Petersburg Club
Lately, Josie’s been spending much less time at the Club. But that’s how it should be, Brandie says. “If you’re doing your job well then you’re working yourself out of the job,” Brandie says. “And so while we always want our teens in our club, ultimately we want to equip them with the skills to be successful in the community and to exercise the voice that we tell them is so valuable.”
Brandie has many connections to Petersburg—she grew up in the neighboring town of Ettrick, and her grandparents used to own a store downtown. But it’s young people like Josie that inspire her enduring love for the city. “There's a deeper connection, a deeper passion for me related to the children here,” she says. “It’s amazing to be a part of that process where you’re helping them believe in themselves.”