There’s a house on the corner of 31st Street in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood. Its brick walls are accented by a bright blue door. It’s known throughout the neighborhood as the Lighthouse.
Inside, summer interns run up and down creaky wooden stairs after a meeting in the attic. They don’t leave right away, but instead hang out and chat on couches or play a game of pick-up basketball in the backyard, while waiting on kids to arrive later in the afternoon.
The interns come from all over — some from the University of Richmond, some from other area universities. One, Shaquille Christmas, ’15, is here as a University intern, but his story with Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT) dates back much earlier.
It starts, instead, when Christmas moved to Richmond from Trinidad and Tobego in the eighth grade. He and his family lived just four blocks away from CHAT.
His first interactions with the residents of Church Hill weren’t always easy.
“When I first lived here, honestly, I hated it,” he says. “I came from a different country and went through a culture shock, and we were teased a lot for our accents.”
But three years later, something changed. A friend invited him to volunteer at CHAT. Right away, Christmas felt something was different. His family left the neighborhood for the Southside of Richmond just a few weeks later, but Christmas continued to come back to CHAT as a mentor.
He says the experience helped him better understand the people of the neighborhood.
“Doing so much work with the community, I love it here now,” he says. “Being here and working with CHAT has helped me to move past that part of my life, where I held onto all those ill feelings toward the community. I have a much, much softer heart for the community.”
So when Christmas made the decision to stay in Richmond for college, he knew he wanted to continue making time for his work at CHAT.
“When I first started, I was thinking, it must be hard for the kids to have so many people in and out,” he says. “So it was really important to me to keep those relationships and friendships going.”
Through CHAT, he met Michael Rogers, Richmond’s VISTA mentor program coordinator, and learned how to connect his own relationships with the work the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement was already doing with the organization.
He started tutoring students in an after-school program. For the last two summers, he worked as an intern for the summer camp, assisting with basketball and soccer, arts and crafts, and bible study.
This summer, he’s even parlaying his experience to an internship in Honduras through UrbanPromise. Just as he does at CHAT, he’ll mentor and try to be a positive influence for children at a summer camp.
As soon as he returns to Richmond, he’ll be back at CHAT, playing soccer in the backyard, or looking over reading lessons, or maybe just listening. And while he’s teaching the students, he’ll be learning just as much from them about what makes a community.
“I don’t know what life would be like without CHAT here,” he says. “It’s really a lighthouse. It’s a beacon.”