In a year that at times feels upside down, one silver lining is the emergence of heroes. Across the nation, everyday citizens have stepped up to battle a pandemic and fight for long overdue racial equality on a global scale. And, right here at home, our neighbors have shown us that you can make a real difference in your own backyard.
Read on to learn about our 2020 Northern Virginians of the Year, and let them inspire you to make the world a better place in your own corner of the world.
Well known for her weekly NBC4 Washington segment “Wednesday’s Child,” award-winning journalist Barbara Harrison is continuing her legacy of helping local kids by partnering with Children’s National Hospital.
Some years, birthdays feel a little more monumental than the ones prior. Such is the case for Children’s National Hospital, which officially turns 150 years old this year. And, to help ring in the celebration, the pediatric care hospital has recruited award-winning NBC4 Washington journalist Barbara Harrison as its director of community engagement.
Harrison, who officially retired from NBC4 Washington last summer in 2019 after 38 years of broadcasting from the DC affiliate, accepted the position in October 2019 to lead a task force to bolster relationships between Children’s National and the community ahead of the milestone birthday.
“I retired from my job with a plan to build on the community work that I have done since I moved here in 1981,” Harrison says. “I wanted to start my own company to serve as a consultant in fields that I have worked in (Barbara Harrison Media). It wasn’t easy to leave a job I loved but I was excited about using my voice and experience to help the community in other ways.”
Opened in downtown Washington, DC in 1870 with 12 beds to care for Civil War orphans, Children’s National is one of the country’s top 10 pediatric hospitals and treats patients from around the world, including roughly 34,000 patients from Virginia each year. And, although the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the hospital’s birthday celebration, Harrison isn’t pausing her own operations for the celebration, and continues to reach out to patients to hear their stories, as well as to community members to gain their support. “I think my specialty as a journalist is giving people a voice to tell their stories,” Harrison says.
For Harrison, partnering with Children’s National felt like a natural call of duty. A beloved anchor who has interviewed sitting presidents, first ladies, celebrities and other globally known leaders, children have always had a special place in Harrison’s heart. Known for her popular segment “Wednesday’s Child” on NBC4 (which highlighted the plight of local foster children and resulted in many finding their forever homes), her philanthropic projects in the community have, more often than not, mostly related to the needs of the DMV’s children.
“I often would go to Children’s National and I would interview child patients who were available for adoption for the ‘Wednesday’s Child’ segment,” Harrison says. “I saw the amazing attention, the amazing care that these kids would get and when I saw the look on their faces when a doctor or nurse or caregiver in the hospital would come into the room, I was so amazed at how they would light up and there would be a wonderful smile over their face.”
Today, Harrison continues to focus on the upcoming birthday event for Children’s National (as of press time, the organization was planning on hosting a belated birthday celebration at the 2021 Children’s Ball, tentatively scheduled for April 17, 2021). But Harrison’s role doesn’t end at a birthday party, as she is actively forming long-term relationships and partners for the hospital, raising awareness through projects like video content telling the story of Children’s National and hosting virtual events throughout the region.
For example, pre-pandemic, Harrison headed to Arlington in January to highlight the care Children’s National provides to thousands of Virginia residents. And, she’ll be continuing her work as Children’s National looks ahead to opening its Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, a pediatric research and innovation hub that will use the talents of public and private partners to discover breakthrough technology and treatments in DC. (Construction is expected to be completed in December 2020.)
“I spent a lot of my time involved in community-oriented projects, and I’ve never turned down any group that needed me, especially if I saw that they were doing something that benefited the community of kids,” Harrison says. “I’ve just been so moved by the care at Children’s National. You walk into the hospital and you’re greeted by people who are really there to make things happen for you as quickly and efficiently as possible, and with all the love and attention that they can possibly give.” -Holly Gambrell
Jordan L. Costen
When he realized that things do get better, Jordan L. Costen decided to create a “safe space” for LGBTQ+ youth who may be struggling just like he did.
Growing up gay and Black in Atlanta was not the easiest of childhoods, says Jordan L. Costen. “There was a fair amount of depression, suicidal ideation and it wasn’t until I came to Washington, DC, for college [at Howard University] that I started to feel comfortable in my own skin.”
Now 35 years old, he started to see that there are high-school-aged LGBTQ+ children in his new home of Alexandria who might be in the same sort of anguish that he was as a kid. So, Costen and his husband, Charles A. Sumpter Jr., developed a “safe space” for similarly challenged kids to congregate and interact with others who might be going through the same issues. They aptly named it Safe Space NOVA, Inc., establishing “a safe, accepting, supportive environment to combat social stigmas, bullying and other challenges faced by LGBTQ+ youth,” according to the mission statement.
A longtime volunteer and mentor for area nonprofits, Costen wondered “if there was more I could be doing. I essentially thought back to that 13-year-old me who was struggling with his sexual identity,” he says, describing the origins. Once he incorporated the Safe Space concept, he enrolled in a certificate program in nonprofit administration and leadership at Northern Virginia Community College to better understand how to sustain a charitable organization. (Costen is big on education: In addition to his degree in TV production from Howard, a master’s in public communications from American University and the certificate from NOVA, he’s now a full-time master’s student at Catholic University’s clinical social work program.)
Safe Space NOVA organizes group social activities, such as laser tag games and miniature golf, and strives to help develop leadership and advocacy skills among its members. Events have diminished during the COVID-19 pandemic, but pre-pandemic the organization hosted groups as small as three participants to as many as 20 at a time. Costen knows there are more kids they could be helping but “they don’t always show up. Maybe they don’t like the event, which is OK, or they can’t get a ride. Or they aren’t out to their parents.” And those are the kids, Costen believes, who may need a safe space the most.
The Safe Space NOVA volunteers, he says, “are people who can actually say we struggled with [sexuality]. You get to see us as having succeeded: We graduated college, we have our own families. So you can get through this just as we did.”
Meanwhile, Costen is on a four-year mission, sooner if possible, to raise the funds to have a physical location—a genuine space for Safe Space NOVA. -Buzz McClain
When the pandemic hit, putting food on the table became a worry for many. Annie Turner and her team at Food for Others made sure local families didn’t go hungry.
When the pandemic hit and stay-at-home orders went into effect, that included working from home for many. But, for many others, shuttered businesses quickly turned to job loss and economic hardship.
“Overnight our demand increased about 400%,” says Annie Turner, the executive director of Food for Others, a Fairfax-based food bank that provides groceries for local families in need. On a typical day, pre-pandemic, FFO would serve about 60 to 80 families from its warehouse. By April, in the throes of the COVID-19 crisis, that number skyrocketed to about 250, she says.
Turner, who has served as executive director since 2016, led the food bank’s team through the chaotic time, ensuring Fairfax’s most vulnerable didn’t go hungry—and continues to manage the ongoing need as many residents remain out of work and in need of food assistance.
“We assume the demand [for food] is going to stay with us for 18 to 24 months, at least,” says Turner. “We know that this is going to have an impact for many years to come.”
For Turner, jumping into action to meet the rapidly rising demand was a task she was up to. Prior to entering the nonprofit world, she had worked for the U.S. Navy as a civil engineer in Norfolk. A NoVA native, she and her husband returned to the area in 2000 and she quickly got involved as a volunteer with Food for Others after discovering the need through her church.
But, she says, the reality of food insecurity in Fairfax didn’t really hit home until she started volunteering. “First of all, I had no idea there was such a need in the community,” Turner says. “Seeing people lined up for food just blocks from my neighborhood [in Falls Church] was really impactful. Whenever I did service projects before, we did them in DC, and it wasn’t until I showed up at that site it just hit me … once I understood, I just couldn’t help but be involved.”
That initial volunteer experience led her to eventually becoming a board member. After seven years, she was named executive director in 2016 and came on board full time.
She says being a volunteer first gave her a unique perspective and she tries to keep that frame of mind when working with new volunteers.
“When they’re getting to know Food for Others, we offer to give them a tour [of the warehouse],” says Turner. “They just don’t understand the scope of it until they see it.”
And now that need is more than ever, as thousands of Fairfax residents remain out of work. During the height of the pandemic, FFO’s 10, full-time employees and seven temporary workers were on-site to distribute food, as many of their volunteers (many of them older and high-risk) remained sheltered at home. But, with volunteer hours contributing the work of 16.5 full-time workers, it was a stretch to accomplish everything without them. Additionally, in the initial months of the pandemic, much of the food supply chain was down (grocery stores normally donate leftover food, but without excess to give, the nonprofit had to purchase much more of its food out of pocket).
Now, with some volunteers back and food supply chains up and running, things are operating a bit more smoothly. However, families now line up outside, instead of going into the warehouse, and that long line may be the biggest indicator of the ongoing need in the region.
“So many of our families were in the service industry and they were hit especially hard,” says Turner, who notes 50% of clients over the last four months are new to the program. “And when all of a sudden you don’t have a paycheck, it’s an emergency. That’s where we come in. We are the safety net. So many of our clients are living on the edge.” -Katie Bianco
When thousands took to the streets in support of Black Lives Matter around the world, Juddy Joliceur didn’t just join in, the 14-year-old planned a march of her own.
In the spring, largely in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer, large-scale protests swelled across the country and even around the world. Hundreds of thousands marched in support of the Black Lives Matter movement as the nation faced a reckoning around racial injustice and police brutality. And, while the national headlines focused on marches in big cities like Minneapolis and Washington, DC, there were a number of protests organized even closer to home right here in Northern Virginia.
One such march was organized by rising high school freshman Juddy Joliceur. At just 14 years old, the Fauquier High School student says watching the other protests—and her own experiences with racism—inspired her to plan a local demonstration. So, after recruiting a few of her friends and tweeting at the superintendent of Fauquier County Public Schools for permission, Joliceur led about 250 (mostly young) people from Fauquier High School to Eva Walker Park in Warrenton on June 10, in what they dubbed the Black Lives Matter Peace March.
“Even though we’re young, you can still fight for what you believe in,” says Joliceur, who notes the march was just the first step. She and her friends are working with the Warrenton Police Department to plan additional Black Lives Matter events in schools, including a town hall with police for middle and high school students and a field day for elementary school students (when public health guidelines deem it safe to do so).
Joliceur’s drive to organize Black Lives Matter events at the local level is an impressive feat for someone so young, but, she says, some of that drive comes from her own experiences with racism. She recalls a heartbreaking time in middle school when a fellow student called her a racial slur as just one of her many experiences with racism.
Thankfully, she says, her friends—of all races—who helped her plan the march “understand the oppression of Black people. They support the Black Lives Matter movement.”
While her peace march happened at the local level, Joliceur says she hopes to see national improvements as a result. “There needs to be changes in the police throughout the U.S. Maybe not the funding, but new rules set, stricter laws against discrimination,” she says. “Arrest all those police officers that killed all those Black people. The fact that Breonna Taylor’s (killers haven’t been arrested) is crazy.”
At the June march, Joliceur had planned to speak, but was overcome with emotion and handed the microphone to her fellow students.
But don’t think that’s the last you’ll hear from her. She says she’d like to go into politics or be an advocate for Black Lives Matter when she grows up. Or, “maybe someday president. We’ll see.” -Katie Bianco
Amelie and Sophia Clarke
Like most teenagers, when COVID-19 hit and schools abruptly closed in March, rising high school seniors Amelie and Sophia Clarke found themselves feeling helpless—and wanting to help.
Foor Amelie and Sophia Clarke, it wasn’t a matter of if they would help during the pandemic, they just wanted to figure out how.
“We founded Hopes & Seams by accident. When school was canceled, we felt helpless and didn’t want to sit back,” says Amelie. “We wanted to be a part of the solution.”
So the twins, who attend Rock Ridge High School in Ashburn, decided to put their sewing skills to work (their grandmother had taught them how to sew when they were younger) and started making masks. But they knew they wanted to do something more than simply sell them. They wanted to get their masks to some of the most vulnerable populations in the region. With that in mind, Hopes & Seams was born.
The mask-making venture runs on a one-for-one model. For every mask someone buys—available on Etsy and their website—they donate one to someone in need. As of press time, the sisters had already made 2,400 masks and donated to local organizations such as Mobile Hope Loudoun, Feed a Hero, INOVA Schar Cancer Institute and INOVA Children’s Hospital.
Now, the young women spend their days sewing masks and personally delivering them to those in need, and doing their best to spread some hope. For example, they’ve made weekly deliveries to Mobile Hope of Loudoun, a nonprofit that works with homeless and at-risk youth, of both masks and baked goods (donated by Hopes & Seams partner, Amphora Catering). The twins have also interviewed medical personnel during their drop-offs and report about the status of the virus on their social media channels.
The young entrepreneurs—who credit their experience with their school’s business club, DECA, with giving them their entrepreneurial chops—have also worked to refine their masks and continue to improve upon them. Some of the nurses they met during their deliveries to local hospitals, for instance, told them the elastic ties on their PPE would tug on their ears and hurt after a long day, so the Clarke sisters started making their masks with ties made from softer T-shirt material.
And, as high school students with school pride, they’re also focused on the fashion. Their initial run of masks was made with their high school’s logo and, as friends caught wind of it, they started getting requests for themed masks from other local high schools, along with college logos and even Washington Nationals logos. They say, once school is back in-person, masks will no doubt be a fashion statement.
“Masks are definitely a fashion statement. People don’t want to wear the same mask every day,” says Sophia.
As teenagers, they’re mostly focused on masks for young people. Even their 11-year-old sister, Izzy, has gotten in on the act, sewing smaller masks for kids (and for dolls to make mask-wearing feel less scary).
For Amelie and Sophia (and little sister Izzy), their mask making is just a continuation of a childhood of service. “When we were little, we’d make sandwiches at church, donate to Toys for Tots, do beach cleanups,” says Sophia. “Now we’re just continuing to make that community impact.”
And their advice for other young people who want to make a difference?
Says Amelie: “Anything, even if you think it’s small, can make a difference. Just us donating masks is giving back to the community. Don’t be afraid to start small and to take action. Just go and do it. Spreading kindness is what is most important and taking risks. That’s what’s going to get you far in life.” -Katie Bianco
Morgan Brophy and Rachel Stanton
When the coronavirus caused the cancellation of in-person performing arts events around the world—and endangered the livelihoods of artists—two local Wolf Trap employees stepped in to help.
Seeing many of her friends’ performances abruptly get canceled, the longtime Wolf Trap employee and her colleauge, Andrew Crooks, a vocal coach and conductor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, decided to set up what they thought would be a small, online Facebook fundraiser to help struggling artists.
“It felt like our obligation to do something to help the artists who are here who make our jobs possible,” says Brophy. “Within about 45 minutes we had set up a Facebook fundraiser and bank account and we thought maybe we could raise $10,000. We hit that goal in two days.”
When Brophy saw that the fundraiser, dubbed Artist Relief Tree, was taking off, she recruited her colleague, Rachel Stanton, assistant director, artistic operations, Wolf Trap Opera and Classical Programming, along with a few other volunteers throughout the U.S. “From there, within four days, we had a brand-new website, six core-team volunteers and we had raised $100,000,” recalls Brophy.
That was back in March. As of press time, Artist Relief Tree has raised $450,000 and is aiming to get to $1 million.
The goal of the fundraiser is to provide a $250 one-time “solidarity” donation to every artist who applies. While that’s not enough to keep an artist afloat, Brophy and Stanton say the money can supplement other forms of financial help and close the gap on a rent payment or groceries.
“The $250 was a gesture,” says Brophy. “It can make enough of a difference to get someone through to the end of the month. It’s also more about showing our artistic community that someone cares.”
The fund was one of the first set up for artists when the pandemic hit. Since then, larger organizations like The Mellon Foundation have set up relief funds, but Brophy says they were “first responders,” sending a quick payment to artists before unemployment and other financial options were available.
As news of the fundraiser spread, high-profile artists got word of it and now Artist Relief Tree has the backing of a number of famous artists, like musicians Amanda Palmer, Ben Folds and Ani diFranco, and writers George R. R. Martin, Brene Brown and Iljeoma Oluo, and actor and comedian Russell Brand. The nonprofit has expanded to 23 volunteers on four continents and is fiscally sponsored by Charitable Allies, which means donations are tax deductible.
As of press time, Artist Relief Tree has distributed $250 payments to more than 1,500 of the 3,500 artists globally who applied in this initial round of applications, and it’s working on fundraising to get payment to the more than 15,000 artists still on the waiting list.
While the pandemic endures and it remains to be seen when live arts will once again fully take a bow, Brophy says she has hope for the future of the industry. “The analogy I keep coming back to is when there’s a forest fire, it’s devastating and this will destroy a lot. But there are seeds that cannot sprout without the intense heat of a forest fire,” she says. “There are things that will come out on the other end of this that we would not have seen otherwise. There is a place, I don’t know how long down the road, where we will start to see some of the saplings start to come out of this.” -Katie Bianco