Week 13: Virginia

PHOTO — Children at Southgate Community Center in the midst of creating a sensory garden which is designed to be inclusive for children of all abilities with raised garden beds and plenty of freedom to play together.




“Civilization is the process in which one gradually increases the number of people included in the term ‘we’ or ‘us’ and at the same time decreases those labeled ‘you’ or ‘them’ until that category has no one left in it.”  –Howard Winters[1]

For the week leading up to Thanksgiving, I was welcomed into the fold at Southgate Community Center in Reston, Va. The experience was illuminating, and made me thankful that in the week of a holiday where our country is rather selective about its history, I found so many people supporting families in pursuit of the American Dream.

People familiar with Northern Virginia tend to have a very specific idea of Reston – namely, that it’s wealthy and white. In fact, the town’s north end and center do reflect the opulent scene stereotyped. But south Reston is high in diversity and high in need.

The “us” and “them” dynamic is at play in various parts of the area: Reston is wealthy overall, yet that doesn’t seem to be reflected across the schools or the neighborhoods. There are two community centers in town, although the one serving the north end is a for-profit initiative serving middle- and high-income families. Virginia is one state, yet deeply politically divided and fiercely removed, in the northern part, from any notion of “the South.” Northern Virginians are known to preserve said dynamic by claiming political progressiveness (positioning “the other” part of the state as having “the other” political viewpoint), yet it also houses the national headquarters of the NRA.

The misconception about Reston itself can pull the wool over the eyes of community members and public officials. “They don’t see what we see on a daily basis,” says Ricardo Cabellos, Director of Southgate Community Center. “There’s a huge disparity between income, so (poor families) fall between the gaps, especially immigrant families.”

Cabellos has led the effort to revamp the center, which was built six years ago but only in recent years has become a haven for the diverse neighborhoods it serves.

“When I got here this place was sad, it was empty. It had that institutionalized feel,” says Lilia Jiménez-Siuhengalu, who connects the center to many services through Reston Interfaith as well as serving on its advisory council. “Now we have kids here every single day, and we’ve seen some of them really blossom. Many stay involved and want to give back. It’s so empowering to them. It’s like a big family.”

Cabellos credits his staff and volunteers for building such a strong community there. “That’s what made our center so vibrant, we brought in people that reflected the diversity of the community,” he says. “We understand the diversity and embrace it. The diversity now is truly amazing. In the neighborhood I work with there’s probably 40 languages spoken. I think we share the same struggles and help each other out.”

Eighty percent of the young people who use the center are on free or reduced lunch at school, and there are plenty of parents and other adults that also benefit. The remarkable range of services offered include tutoring and after-school care, youth basketball and soccer teams, English lessons, pro bono legal services (with Spanish- and Arabic-speaking attorneys), free yoga, (nearly) free Zumba classes, and computer use.

Christine Hodgson, who I met when we both worked in underserved California schools through City Year San Jose, has returned home to be an assistant director and part of her community’s transformation. “We grew up playing in the streets,” she remembers of south Reston. “Growing up I was never allowed to go to the courts because it was unsafe, with a lot of gangs. And I lived one neighborhood over and loved basketball.”

Now those courts are part of the center, and Hodgson says, “I think the community center itself just feels like a family. Kids come here and feel like they’re home and they have a safe space.”

Marisa, a tenth-grader, agrees. “It’s great here,” she says while volunteering on a Saturday. “It keeps people from getting in trouble, and it teaches us how to help others. It’s fun and everyone’s so happy. What would we be doing right now if we weren’t at the center?”

A huge focus at Southgate is service to others, with respect and generosity constant themes in the programs for children.

“Kids want to be here and want to help,” says Hodgson. “Last month we had a haunted house and it was free, but people brought canned food items and donated them. It’s a constant flow of giving and supporting.”

The first day I visited the center, they held a community service project in which volunteers painted a tree mural, organized donated books and worked toward creating a butterfly garden and a sensory garden with raised beds that will be inclusive to children of all abilities. The spearhead for that project is super-volunteer and recreational therapist Michelle Burchett.

In addition to working with several children with disabilities and volunteering a great deal of her time with the children at Southgate, Burchett runs Our Endless Opportunities, an initiative designed to create spaces for children of all abilities to come together in a recreational environment.

“I feel like if you can learn to play together, then you can learn to live together,” Burchett says. “People play first. You’re at your most natural self when you’re playing. It’s when you’re the real ‘you.’”

Burchett says she initially became passionate about working with the disability community while studying toward a degree in health promotion. “I saw a girl give a presentation who happened to be blind,” Burchett recalls. “She got three minutes into the presentation and the teacher started talking for her. She just took over. I watched the girl’s initial reaction of pure anger, and then pure defeat.”

So Burchett switched careers and pursued recreational therapy, which she combines with her graduate degree in public policy and love for volunteering to motor Our Endless Opportunities. Burchett builds positive community by rejecting the us/them divide we create through an “able/other” dichotomy that assumes all children are either “normal” or “special.”

“Services are diluted” due to misconceptions about children with different abilities, she says, noting children for whom English is not their first language, children with attention problems, and children with either intellectual or physical disabilities are all “lumped together.” Instead of providing support, “you’re just kind of being babysat. We need to line up relevant support. It’s about changing gears – different needs require a different skill set.”

In addition to the able/other divide leaving certain children without relevant support, children are often kept separate and unequal from an early age, which stunts the emotional growth of each child and the community as a whole.

“Everyone’s scared to let their kid out now,” says Burchett. “There are so many segregated programs. Everybody’s isolated.”

In the garden at Southgate, children will be able to explore nature together and will learn to harvest food, cook healthy recipes and share food with the rest of the community. Burchett says by creating an inclusive environment, children of all abilities are welcome and they learn from each other.

“You start learning about your own abilities, what special talents you have,” she says. “You learn about friendship – what it takes to be somebody’s friend. You have an understanding for that other person and what their conditions may be.”

So it goes for the families of south Reston themselves, who transcend ethnic backgrounds to provide constant support for one another in the face of class, language and legal challenges.

“I know the struggles my parents went through to raise me here,” says Cabellos. “Something in me always wants to help others in the same situation.”

Cabellos’ father came from a rural village in the Andes mountains, where he was the first in his family to go to school – which was three hours away. “The first time he saw a horse was John Wayne,” Cabellos says, “and he thought the horse was going to come through the screen!”

His father’s indiscriminate kindness produced a miracle for the Cabellos family. “My dad was the maître d’ at a hotel and a man was sick one night and asked for some medicine,” he says. “My dad always wanted to help people so he opened up the restaurant and made him soup.” That man invited his dad to his office the next day, and it turned out he was a Rockefeller. “He created an internship to bring his sister to the US, and that made way for the rest of the family.

“All those stories make me want to help whoever comes through those doors.”

After all, we are a country of immigrants, not a country formerly known as a country of immigrants. Cabellos, who has academic and professional experience in politics, notes that supporting one another is an urgent need because class and race divisions continue to keep hard-working families under pressure.

“In the neighborhood we work with, everyone is living paycheck to paycheck, and I see the stress on these families,” he says. “Right now there’s a huge gap between rich and poor. We need more people of color in leadership and to close the gap with the rich and poor. There are a lot of families who don’t have enough to save. I see that gap widening, and it needs to be closing down.”

Southgate Community Center thus offers a beautiful transcendence of the us/them paradox: It brings people together through shared struggle, but with open doors to all. People who work at or use the center do not resent others’ wealth or increased access to opportunities, though they hope for justice in the coming generation. They do not seek to belittle or to drag down the “haves,” but they work tirelessly to support each other’s climb over the wall only seen by the “have-nots.”

“I think the most fulfilling thing is being able to create the relationships with the kids and let them know it’s not their fault or their families’ fault, but they’re not exposed to a lot of opportunities or ideas or basic skills that other kids are,” says Hodgson. “We try to be as creative as possible to get them to be as creative as possible and get these experiences that are going to shape them.”

The center’s focus on inclusion and service emanates from all the people who are drawn to its diverse offerings.

“The adults that come here to volunteer give so much,” says Jiménez-Siuhengalu. “It’s passionate, it’s with their heart. That translates to the kids.”

More than anything, Cabellos is proud that this message does indeed translate to the children. “When I see kids coming up and helping without wanting anything back, that’s amazing,” he says. “That’s all we’ve ever wanted.”


[1] Anne Marie Cantwell. 1994. Howard Dalton Winters: In Memoriam. Midwest Archaeological Conference, Lexington Kentucky. Accessed <http://archaeology.about.com/od/archaeologistsw/g/wintersh.htm>.

One Response to Week 13: Virginia

  1. Richard Cabellos says:

    Fantastic work Daniel keep it up! We miss you brother. You are doing an amazing job hermano.

    Best to you always!

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