HOPE Board Meeting Shows Resolve

Published 5:39 pm Thursday, July 25, 2013

FARMVILLE — HOPE Community Services, Inc. board of directors members attending their Tuesday meeting evidenced determination to successfully bring the embattled community action agency through its current turmoil.

Board members may abandon HOPE, as a name, but show no evidence of giving up hope.

The board appears poised, in fact, to name an interim executive director—Dr. Henry J. Featherston, Jr., retired long-time Amelia public schools educator, current president of the Amelia NAACP and someone with a long history of community action agency service and leadership in the region.

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Members of the board attending the meeting in Farmville demonstrated their resolve to appeal the Virginia Department of Social Services’ (VDSS) recommendation that Governor McDonnell rescind HOPE’s community action agency status.

The board discussed actions to address concerns raised by the VDSS as justification for its suspending community service block grant funds and pursue, if HOPE’s board does not voluntarily give up the designation, rescinding community action agency status.

“We’re working on those things. We’re working on the issues addressed (by VDSS),” board member Jasper Hendricks said during the meeting.

Fran Inge, director of the department’s Office of Volunteer and Community Services, has urged HOPE’s board of directors to voluntarily relinquish community action agency status.

Furthermore, she told The Herald this month that she could see no way HOPE could successfully appeal.

HOPE’s board has been divided on the issue. Some believe they should vote to give up the designation so the state could immediately begin looking for alternative service providers. (In Wednesday’s edition, The Herald reported on STEPS’ willingness to step forward). Others feel the designation is too important to let slip away and that an appeal can be won and the agency can re-start service delivery far quicker than some have predicted.

But there was not one scrap of disagreement apparent between the seven board members attending Tuesday’s meeting and no hint of a whisper about giving up the designation during the hour-plus gathering at the Farmville-Prince Edward Community Library.

Board members spoke of potential nominees to fill current vacancies, and the anticipated additional spots opening on the board through resignations, as well as hopes to re-establish the Energyshare and Project Discovery programs.

More significantly, the board also appears set to bring former board member, and one-time interim executive director for several months, Dr. Featherston, to fill that latter role once again, the office left empty following the resignation of former executive director, Rev. Kitty Smith, earlier this month.

“The biggest problem, though, is providing services,” Hendricks said, regarding HOPE’s precarious position with VDSS. “The biggest issue was that no services have been provided to the community from the organization, which is why they want to take away our community action designation.”

The designation is a tool not limited in its potential reach and Hendricks spoke of a wider scope.

“I think that it’s important that people understand that community action designation does not mean just the grant. It isn’t about Weatherization. It isn’t about just the grant,” Hendricks said, alluding to one Virginia community action agency that has a credit union and teaches financial responsibility.

An agency in Southwest Virginia has housing complexes, he continued, “where they work with low-income folks to move them out of their cycle of poverty…It’s bigger than Weatherization. It’s bigger than giving somebody a check to help them pay for their light bill this month and then that same person comes back three months later. It’s about teaching them how to avoid the situation again, whether it is to help them with budgeting or to help them find a job.

“So when we’re talking about this we have to think that it’s bigger, it’s larger than just a grant,” said Hendricks, Democratic candidate for the 60th district House of Delegates seat in November’s election. “It’s about what our community is capable of doing and how we can help…”

The need to bring an interim executive director to “move things forward,” as another board member put it, was a key component of Tuesday’s meeting and inquiries had been made of Dr. Featherston regarding his willingness to serve in that capacity.

Dr. Featherston, who earned his masters degree from Longwood College in 1971 and is a former chairman of the Amelia County School Board, attended Tuesday’s meeting and was asked to address the meeting.

“We’re honored to have him here,” Hendricks said.

Dr. Featherston spoke of his experience as a former chairman and interim executive director of the region’s community action agency.

“When I acted as interim, after being chairperson,” Dr. Featherston said, “there were issues we had to deal with the funding sources.”

Forgiveness was sought from those funding sources.

“We had to do that and we were able to get funding sources to buy in to what we asked them to do,” he continued. “…There are a lot of things that can be done to get this thing turned around. Like I said, you’ve got to get on your knees and ask for forgiveness and let them know we have a new board, a new direction and we’re going to do the things that are supposed to be done in the proper manner.

“And we’ve got to sell that idea,” said Dr. Featherston, who last served on the board 10 years ago, “that we’re going to do them in the proper manner.”

Hendricks expressed his hope that with “Dr. Featherston’s help we can get back to some of the grantors, because there are two grantors, at least, that have been communicating, that a couple of board members have been communicating with about bringing their services back. And they look very promising.”

Hendricks spoke optimistically about securing a memorandum of understanding from the grantors “as soon as Dr. Featherston gets into place” and he named Energyshare “and possibly Project Discovery. And that means we will be providing services again, not in two years but in two weeks.”

In that event, Hendricks predicted, as far as the commonwealth’s department of social services is concerned “we are doing services.”

And that would be just the start, the agency’s foot back in the door.

Hendricks told The Herald on Tuesday, “if we can do these two and do them well for a couple of months we can then go back and apply for other (grants) because we’ve had time to put that infrastructure in place to do it right.”

There is currently $3,047.19 in the agency’s Energyshare account, in addition to $7,550 in the payroll account, HOPE’s treasurer, board member Howard Simpson, reported, and $17,534.29 in the operating account.

Should HOPE be successful in appealing to the VDSS to keep its community action agency status, it may emerge with a new identity.

It was Dr. Featherston who suggested the agency may want to abandon HOPE as its name in order to help turn the page toward a new beginning.

“Another thing you need to consider,” he advised, “is the word HOPE has a very negative connotation, so you might want to, in the back of your minds, start thinking about a different designation, a different name.”

HOPE may be lost but hope, itself, has not been discarded.