A RIVERSIDE NONPROFIT IS HELPING TO BREAK THE CYCLE OF POVERTY BY CREATING TOOLS FOR PROSPERITY IN ONE OF WILMINGTON’S
BY LAURA KURZ, DELAWARE TODAY
Logan Herring, founder of REACH Riverside/WRK Group, is on a mission to blur the racial divide when it comes to greater opportunity for success in Delaware. The ChristianaCare van pictured behind him is one of two vehicles provided for promotions and field trips.
This page: At Kingswood Community Center, located in Wilmington’s Riverside neighborhood, kids ages 2 to 5 enjoy activities like story time and arts and crafts. In Riverside, 70 percent of children live below the poverty line. To help empower the community and provide families with real opportunities, Kingswood CEO Logan Herring founded REACH Riverside—a member of Purpose Built Communities now known as the WRK Group—a nonprofit that focuses on redevelopment, education and community health through government funds, philanthropic donations and a network of dedicated community partners. Its many and diverse programs benefit all ages from youth to seniors.
In northeast Wilmington’s Riverside neighborhood, nestled between Route 13 and I-495, 70 percent of the community’s children live below the poverty line and 41 percent of adults are without a high school diploma. Of the area’s 3,000 residents, one-third live in public
housing, where the median household income is $9,277. Once a thriving urban community, Riverside has fallen victim to decades of neglect, poverty and racial inequality. For more than 75 years, the Kingswood Community Center has provided essential services for families in the Riverside neighborhood, from school-age children to senior citizens. In 2016, Wilmington native Logan Herring became CEO of Kingswood. Public service came naturally to him; his grandfather the Rev. Otis Herring founded Wilmington’s Union Baptist Church, where he delivered community services to address hunger, education and housing. However, the younger Herring quickly realized that if the tide was going to change for Riverside, if the residents were actually going to be given a chance, more action was needed.
Thus came the formation of REACH Riverside, a nonprofit and member of the national Purpose Built Communities (PBC) network. PBC was founded in 2009 after the revitalization of the East Lake neighborhood in Atlanta. According to Charles McDowell, REACH Riverside’s board chairman and one of the individuals responsible for Riverside’s participation in PBC, it has a four-pronged strategy: high-quality, mixed income housing; a cradle to college education system to serve the neighborhood; health, wellness, safety, and commercial facilities and programs to support the neighborhood; and a “community quarterback,” a 501c3 whose only corporate purpose is to coordinate the neighborhood revitalization efforts and to focus on a specific neighborhood. Included in Riverside’s $250 million holistic revitalization (funded by a combination of government, private and philanthropic dollars) are transformative programs that will help break the cycle of poverty: 600 units of high-quality, mixed-income housing; services for family support; programs to teach economic stability and financial literacy; and health and human services.
“If we can make a lasting difference in Riverside, we can show that we can actually make a lasting difference in intergenerational poverty that is highly correlated with race,” Delaware Senator Chris Coons wrote in the 2020 REACH Riverside Impact Report. Today the organization, known as “The WRK Group,” encompasses the Teen Warehouse, REACH Riverside and Kingswood Community Center. REACH Riverside is the largest member in the Purpose Built Communities network with 134 employees, 59 of whom are teens from the surrounding neighborhood. There are dozens of community partners invested in The WRK Group’s success, from Eastside Charter School to the Wilmington Housing Authority.
“Logan has led the charge of the mission-driven approach that we take,” says Julie Bieber, director of operations for the Kingswood Community Center. “There is a vision for transforming the entire neighborhood, and people are actually beginning to see that transformation. …There is an incredible sense of camaraderie and togetherness. The pandemic shut down many organizations, [but] we continued to grow.” In early October, Delaware Governor John Carney announced that REACH Riverside would be the recipient of a $26.4 million grant from the American Rescue Plan. “This funding will accelerate 141 homes to nearly 350 homes in just two years,” Herring said. “What was once projected to be more than a 20-year project could be 60 percent complete by the end of 2023. This will create a critical mass of high-quality, affordable housing, something that is desperately needed throughout our city and state, and especially here in Riverside.” The Kingswood Community Center was crucial to Riverside families during the height of the pandemic, playing a vital role in the Riverside Relief Fund, which distributed more than 400 Chromebooks and 15,000 meals to Riverside residents. Staff also registered 27 residents for the GED and 38 residents for the Department of Labor workforce program during this time. Over the summer, children gathered for summer camp while adults in the community enjoyed outdoor concerts as part of the Summer in the Park program. There was also a groundbreaking for the new $40 million reimagined Kingswood Community Center, which will offer 70,000 square feet of space for expanded educational, medical and recreational services.
“Our mission is to empower the community,” says Robyn Bennett, the organization’s director of racial justice and human resources, and a former Riverside resident. “Racial equity is at the forefront of this, and we want our community to understand the tools we have to help them. I cried the first time I came back to Riverside and saw the housing going up where my former home used to be. It’s important for me to know that I’m part of an organization working for the community where I was raised.” James “Ray” Rhodes, the community center’s board chair, was a resident of the Riverside Housing Projects in 1968 and a few weeks shy of his fifth birthday when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Rhodes and his sister were at the afterschool program at Kingswood on that day.
“Today, Kingswood serves as a refuge for our community, offering services for all. …These allow families to address issues including food, technology, tutoring, fellowship, education, health care concerns and mental health access,” Rhodes continues. “The new Kingswood Community Center will provide more space to allow us to have an even greater reach with the influx of new housing, upgrades forthcoming at Eastside Charter School, a growing senior population and predicted economic growth on the Governor Printz corridor.”
The Teen Warehouse, which opened last August, has three goals for the teens of Wilmington: safety, educational support and workforce readiness. Construction was completed just prior to the pandemic, but that didn’t stop the organization from offering critical needs for some of Riverside’s most vulnerable. Over the course of the pandemic alone, the Warehouse had 478 teen members (ages 13 to 19) join, participating in the programming focused on recreation, education, arts, career and health (REACH). They participate in workforce training, which aimed to employ more than 125 teens in 2021. REACHing and Investing in youth for Sustainable Employment (RISE) is a 12-week program that helps teens develop skills through emotional intelligence training, interview preparation and service project execution. Participants gain work experience with employer partners, including culinary arts with the Buccini Pollin Group; information technology with the Delaware Department of Labor; coding and web development with Code Differently; and CompTIA A+ certification with NERDiT Now. Riverside teens are also working to give back to their community, helping address one of its biggest issues: being classified as a “food desert” (an area where residents have few options and limited access to healthy food sources). Spearheaded by Jessica Wescott from Planting to Feed, a Wilmington-based nonprofit that addresses hunger, The WRK Group launched two community refrigerators that are fully stocked with healthy meal options, fruits and vegetables.
Leveraging the partnership with Planting to Feed, community teens created an agricultural pod at the Teen Warehouse, where they are learning about vertical farming and hydroponics. The pod now yields more than 40 pounds of produce a week, with the hope of someday making the community refrigerators self-sustainable throughout the year. “These teens are learning a critical lesson about the importance of growing things,” says Melody Phillips, director of operations for the Warehouse. “Our goal is that next summer, this group will also help manage the community garden at the new Kingswood Community Center.” For many, the work at REACH Riverside has brought their lives full circle. “The place of refuge that embraced my sister and I as children has grown and developed into a center that has a much greater reach and one that has galvanized not just the Riverside neighborhood, but our city, county, state, and, to some degree, other parts of our country,” Rhodes says. “My hope is that our Purpose Built Community will be the ‘model’ community that is the blueprint for others to follow.”