This Nonprofit Empowers the African American Community During COVID-19

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COVID-19 is a great equalizer in many ways. Almost everyone is susceptible to the new coronavirus, no matter race or socioeconomic status. But some, including African Americans, the elderly, and the recently incarcerated, are more at risk.

Clovia Lawrence, co-founder of Project Give Back to Community, a nonprofit based in Richmond, Virginia, joins The Daily Signal Podcast to explain how she is stepping up to serve African Americans affected by the pandemic. Lawrence, or “Miss Community,” as some call her, says it’s critical to “go back and give to the community that has so freely given to us.” 

Also on today’s show, we share your letters to the editor and a good news story about Fainting Goat Spirits, a family-owned and -operated distillery that has shifted operations from whisky and vodka to hand sanitizer during COVID-19. 

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Virginia Allen: I am joined by Clovia Lawrence, the co-founder of Project Give Back to Community, a nonprofit based in Richmond, Virginia. Clovia, thanks so much for being here.

Clovia Lawrence: Thank you so much for having me.

Allen: I just love the name of your organization, Project Give Back to Community, because that’s exactly what you all are doing. It’s what you have been doing since you founded your organization in 2015, and it certainly is what you’re doing right now during COVID-19.

Let’s begin by just talking a little bit about the initiative that you all started, Send-A-Mask, Gloves, and Hand Sanitizer. Tell me about that.

Lawrence: Well, let’s start here, this would have been the 13th year that I hosted my Send-A-Kid 2 Camp Radiothon. So we’ve been doing that. This would have been the 13th year to send kids to summer day camps all summer and after-school programs once they get back.

Well, we know schools are out, we know summer camps are out, so we just did a spinoff with the Send-A-Mask, Gloves, and Hand Sanitizer.

With my organization, we provide the gloves. We’ve met with another organization that provided all of the masks. So we decided to come together.

My radio station, which is my media partner, they were like, “Clo, we have leftover hand sanitizer from all of our live remote broadcasts, so let’s put it together.”

So that’s when we birthed the Send-A-Mask, Gloves, and Hand Sanitizer giveaway, not only for our underserved communities, but our communities of color, for the elderly community, and also for our front-line workers as well.

Allen: Yeah, I love it. So practical, so good, but I know you all have been doing even more. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the other initiatives and projects that you’ve been working on around COVID-19 and helping your community?

Lawrence: The first thing that we wanted to do not only is to give away the masks, the gloves, and enhanced sanitizer, but when we go into underserved communities, we found that a lot of people are hungry. They’re just really hungry. This includes the adults on down to our children as well.

We’ve teamed up with the Richmond public school system to provide … breakfast and lunch for kids Monday through Friday and we also give them weekend packages. So that’s one of our initiatives as well.

But in the process of doing that, we noticed that some parents … weren’t wearing masks and gloves as well. So we wanted to make sure we put masks and gloves in their hands as well and also give them information about RVA Strong, about information if you’re seeking unemployment benefits, other information about housing and how to continue to get food.

So these are just some of the resources that we try to be that funnel to the community. Because a lot of times when you put the word out and news out to the masses, for some reason, our under-resourced communities, they get the information last. So we want to make sure we balance everything out.

Allen: That’s so practical and I think often people just don’t exactly know where to go to get that information or those resources. So that is awesome that you all are making that so readily available for people.

Now, I do want to take a second and just learn a little bit more about the work that you all do as an organization when there’s not a global pandemic going on. You mentioned the summer camps that you all do, but I would love just to take a second for you to share a little bit about the overarching mission and vision of your group.

Lawrence: We started, as you said, Project Give Back to Community, which is a nonprofit organization, in 2015. And we wanted to give returning citizens, men who were returning from incarceration and women, an opportunity to give back greatly to their communities and be a valuable asset and no longer a liability. So the best way for us to do that is provide housing.

We wanted to provide housing, not just the halfway house and you collect furniture from here and there and you say, “Oh, wow, you stay in this bed,” but we wanted to give them remnants of home because we went into the prisons to say, “Hey, look, if we started providing emergency roofing for you, what would be the reasons you will stay or leave?”

And they said, “Oh my God, just the house looks a mess, but the bed—[it’s] like I’m still in prison,” and all of those things.

So we did that survey. So we wanted to come out and say, “We [want] people to live the way we live in our homes.” So that’s what we designed it and we called them the Clo’s House, named after me. And we have six houses and 24 beds.

So we provide housing for men that are returning from incarceration. We are in partnership with the Virginia Department of Corrections. And once they leave the house, in 90 days, they are usually working and we try to move them into their permanent housing, whether it’s helping them to get their credit score up, to purchase a home, or move into an apartment, or be restored fully to their families.

Allen: Wow. That’s amazing. And that passion to serve those that are incarcerated has carried over to really, practically, how you can be helping people during COVID-19. Can you talk a little bit about your work right now in the prisons?

Lawrence: What we try to do is when they first come home, we want to make sure that they feel safe.

We make sure we have thermometers that are in the house. We make sure we have [personal protective equipment] for them. They have masks, they have gloves, and they have Lysol disinfectant. Because, once again, once you return from incarceration, we want you to feel comfortable where you are because with COVID-19, everybody’s afraid of it. You don’t know who’s going to catch it, who has it, or whatever. So the one thing we want to do is make sure all of the Clo’s Houses are thoroughly disinfected.

We have signs up to tell everybody to continuously wash their hands and wipe down the door knobs. And so those things are very important to rest assured. And for the men who are still incarcerated, who will be coming home possibly, that’s where the peer support comes in.

Also, we have the “Day One” video, and it’s a video that is in maybe about 24 of the prisons that we produce with men who had returned from incarceration. So it was a 198 years of men who were incarcerated talking about the education, talking about coming together as a community, talking about continuing your education. So that video is out.

Once men do go into the walls, behind the prison wall, they have that video to watch. So it’s the Day One of your sentence and Day One of you starting your reentry.

Then what we want to do is to stay connected also with the men and women on the outside. We do the “Day One” public service announcements—and these are actual public service announcements from inmates, male and female, on the inside that’s giving hope to the community.

So what happens is we had a young lady who had problems with addiction. She ODed with her 3-month-old in her arms. So on the outside—and we’re running these on our website and also on the radio—she’s saying, “Get help. You don’t want to come to where I am. Get help and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

So what we try to do is utilize the prisoners to make sure we stop and promote public safety on the outside.

Allen: Wow. That’s so powerful. That’s amazing. Now, I do want to take a minute and just talk about how COVID-19 has really been affecting the African American community.

I know that you’re friends with Kay Coles James, the president of The Heritage Foundation. We love her dearly. She’s wonderful. But she tells the story of recently visiting one of her favorite restaurants in Richmond. She also lives in Richmond, like you do.

She walked in to pick up a takeout order and as she was standing in line, she realized that she was the only African American who had gloves and a mask on. And when she began to ask the question why that was, she discovered that many minority communities are really hesitant to trust the information that government officials are telling them.

In response, Mrs. James made a PSA talking about the importance of wearing gloves and masks and that personal protective equipment.

So first, I want to ask you, do you think that that’s true, that there is this level of mistrust? And secondly, how are you all working with the African American community in order to make sure that they’re educated about COVID-19?

Lawrence: Well, it all starts with partnerships, and I believe to be a resource to the community. That means going directly to the doctors.

We have Dr. Danny Avula, who is director of the Richmond and Henrico Health District, to talk about free COVID testing in the African American communities and underserved communities if you’re having some symptoms of COVID-19 and/or you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

I also have doctors on from the Capital Area Health Network to talk about the antibody testing. The antibody testing is not the actual PCR test of the nasal swab, but it just lets you know if you had come in contact with someone with COVID-19 or the antibodies, whether it was months ago to yesterday and the near present.

If you have come in contact and you have the antibodies, then immediately they want you to get the PCR testing.

So putting some of [that] information out, Dr. Danny Avula, and also having African American doctors be a part of it, and also having our governor on—who is the governor of the Commonwealth but he’s also a doctor as well—to talk about, “I know and I understand that to see the experiment, but these were people in a private room.”

So what I do, Virginia, is pose that question. When you’re talking about the mistrust of government when it comes to African Americans or people of color, and I said, “Wow, so how old are you?” And you might say, “I’m 30, 40, 50, 60.” “So you mean to tell me, since your day of birth, you haven’t seen a physician?” And you know what they say to me? “Oh, that’s crazy. Of course, I’ve gone to the doctor.” What is the difference? What is the difference?

The only thing that the community is telling us, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is telling us to protect other people and protect yourself, your children, or the elderly. Just simply cover your face or wear a mask and gloves when you go out. And use disinfectant to clean up the surfaces that you use constantly, whether it’s surfaces in your home, whether it’s door knobs, whether it’s light fixtures and the switchers.

You have to do that because what happens—it’s this old saying, non-blacks can get a cold, black people will get the flu. Non-blacks will get the flu, black people get pneumonia. White people get pneumonia—guess what? Black folks get COVID-19. And our numbers are huge numbers. What I say to people all the time, when I go back to the game show, I said, “Mask for 500, Alex. Mask versus ventilator.”

So these are things that we have to think about so what we do strategically, our sole purpose is when we’re talking to folks in the underserved and under-resourced communities and communities of color, we’re saying, “Do you love your mother? Do you love your father? Because if you love your mother and father, you don’t want to be the carrier of COVID-19 because you don’t want to wear a mask or gloves and they die and you say, “Oh, it wasn’t a conspiracy.” So why do we want to take that chance on the ones that we love?

So our conversation’s a little different when we go out into the community. The blessing about it, I’m not a part of the political arena, so I don’t have to be political. I can go out into the community as someone who loves the community, someone with firsthand information, but I’m going to deliver it in love and truth.

Allen: Yeah, and that’s huge. That is huge to have that delivery of love and truth. [It] just allows people to be really receptive.

And like you say, unfortunately, we have seen that numbers of COVID-19 among the African American community have been quite high and experts are trying to figure out why that is. People are scratching their heads in some ways. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be?

Lawrence: In some instances, and not the largest spectrum, but let’s talk about the communities that I’ve seen, underserved and under-resourced communities.

When you living in communities and you get a lot of resources that are free, it is not the best quality of food. It is not going to be the best quality of food whether you get all of your fruits and vegetables. You do that with your [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], but who really buys vegetables a lot? I think a lot of times nutrition has been a factor.

So we have a higher amount of chronic illnesses when it comes to heart disease, when it comes to lung disease, upper respiratory disease, because in some instances, you can associate that with the food.

We have clusters of people. Wherever there are clusters of people, when you’re talking about public housing or shared spaces, there’s bound to be a cluster of disease because you have no spacing. And so when we’re talking about a cluster of people living together in basically one place, one area, there’s a possibility they all will contract COVID-19.

So that’s why it’s important for us as communities, if you have shared spaces, you have to be mindful. If we have a shared space and we can’t distance ourselves, well, if you go in the kitchen, I won’t go in the kitchen. There are all sorts of things that we can do.

Why don’t we take this opportunity during COVID-19 to eat more fruits and vegetables? To get more vitamin C in? To take vitamins? To look into it? But of course, contact your primary care physician first.

And if something doesn’t feel right—and this is one thing that I tell and I share with people in particular, the African American community, heart attacks, strokes, lung disease, lung cancer has not been distracted by COVID-19.

People that are having heart attack symptoms, people are having strokes who are not calling their PCP, nor are they calling 911 because they fear going to the hospitals because of COVID-19.

Allen: Really sad.

Lawrence: What we have to do is stop looking at government from the top to deal with the issues of concerns when it comes to our communities.

I had a conversation [with], oh my goodness, I call her the queen of Virginia, Mrs. Kay Coles James, and I said:

We have a big population of people. There will be some people who want to just deal with the masses, the upper class, and you want to have people that [are] going to deal with the middle class. And then you’re going to have people that deal with the lower class. And then you’re going to have people that we call them ‘the least of them.’ And these are the people that I want to deal with, because if we deal with the people ‘on the bottom’ and we build them up, we could balance everything out.

So that’s where I want to be.

I didn’t grow up poor, but you have to have a heart for people because we have a dreaded spread of coronavirus.

Allen: Yeah. … That heart for people, that’s so critical.

One of the other groups that sadly has been really negatively impacted by COVID-19 is the elderly population and, specifically, those living in nursing homes.

Canterbury Rehabilitation and Health Center in Richmond, they have seen more than 50 COVID-19 related-deaths among their residents.

James Wright is the medical director of the center and he said during a news briefing in April that if he could do anything differently, he said, “I would have a nursing home founded by a society that puts more emphasis on treating our elders the way they should be treated.”

What are your thoughts on this?

Lawrence: Well, I remember visiting nursing homes, years gone by. I’ll say 15 to 20 years when I was in college at Virginia Union. And we had to do some community work when I joined my sorority Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.

When I walked into this particular nursing home it smelled really bad. And it was almost to the point of, is the restroom in the lobby?

So from that point on, I’m like, “Who’s visiting our elderly population for this place to smell like that? Have we put our family members into these homes and leave them because we trust the social workers and the nurses?”

Now, I’m not blaming anyone, but for that number to be that high, to me, I’m not sure, but it seems like, to me, a lot of surfaces weren’t cleaned.

Allen: Yeah.

Lawrence: That’s just my assessment and I’m not blaming anyone. To me, it’s like … the spread of germs and surfaces to me. And it’s just amazing and it’s so sad that we have … the elderly population that’s there who can’t come home to live with their family members because they need direct care.

So you’re in between a rock and a hard place. You can’t go get mama because mama can’t live in your household. And so at this point, it’s a lot of prayer.

And with COVID-19, it has opened our eyes to a lot of things. It has opened our eyes to some of the things that we try to bury when it comes to the racial divide, when you have people who think that they’re superior. And this COVID-19 has no name, rank capital; whether you’re a billionaire to a no-naire, you can contract COVID-19. It is in our White House right now.

So we have got to stop and look at this and take this opportunity to say, “God, what do you want us to do?” And I hear people talking about, “Oh, it’s our new normal. Oh, it’s our new normal.” I’m pretty sure whenever we started out in our careers or whenever something has happened tragic in our families, or we have lost loved ones, I’m pretty sure a lot of us have dropped down on our knees and prayed, OK?

Allen: Yup.

Lawrence: So the normal is to go back and call God’s name openly. Remember we wanted to take God out of everything? And now we got to put him back. Who’s going to get us out of this? Nobody else. A billionaire cannot stop this COVID today.

Allen: Yeah, yeah.

Lawrence: The government can’t stop it. So the normal is the new normal, if you will, is the same normal it’s been. Call on the Father and I’ll be there for you.

Allen: Amen to that. And I think right now I feel like we’re all being faced with this choice as we watch the news and we see how COVID-19 is, like you say, it’s affecting everyone. In some communities, maybe more than others, but we’re left with this choice of, “Am I going to get offended? Am I going to get angry? Or am I going to take action?”

And I love that you have taken action from a place of really a servant’s heart, of wanting to help, of wanting to impact your community in a positive way. Why was that your response?

Lawrence: That was my response because, as I said, I had this on my mind as I was doing my prayer and I said, “Wow, this is going to disproportionately affect the black and brown communities.” And I said, “I have to be the leader in my community,” and being a leader doesn’t mean that I’m just leading. I had to hear from God the Father.

I had to go into prayer with this because, see, I could be at home with my family. I’m going out three times in a week with my team dealing with people with no mask on, no gloves, and who [don’t] care about COVID-19.

So when I had to do that, God didn’t tell me, “Go to government.” He didn’t say, “Hey, contact someone from the city.” He didn’t tell me to call a Richmond City Council person because you’re going to be in that district. He didn’t say, “Hey, call the governor and let them know what you’re doing. Call your delegate or your senator. Call Tim Kaine and let him know what you’re doing.”

He brought two small businesses whose business was down because of COVID-19. They had a supply of masks and a supply of gloves and hand sanitizer to give away. Let’s go back and give to the community that has so freely given to us, and I think that is the greatest thing that’s God ordained. …

Virginia, that’s all I can say about doing it, and don’t you know we are multiplied every week? We have two small businesses, Brenner Pass, which is a restaurant in Scott’s Addition, and then we have another restaurant of a man who retired from corporate, who provides 200 meals a week for us when we go out in the community.

So we’re doing the mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, and fresh meals, immune system-building meals. This is only God-ordained. That’s it.

Allen: Yeah. It’s exciting. So how can our listeners learn more about Project Give Back to Community and how can they get involved?

Lawrence: Yes. First of all, you can go to our website at … You can follow us on Instagram at @projectgivebacktocommunity. You can also follow us on Twitter at @give_community. And you can also follow me on my Instagram at @community_clo.

And I just want to mention the great sponsors that we have, True Medical Transport LLC and Project Give Back to Community for providing the masks and gloves. We’re just excited about the team—Stack A Mill Entertainment, our radio stations, iPower 92.1, and Kiss FM, and Praise Richmond. We’re all coming together to make it happen because we believe in people.

One death, Virginia, is too many. Even if you say, “Hey, the deaths are low. The deaths are under 1000 in Virginia.” One death is too many, and so that’s what we have to work from and that’s what our sole purpose and passion is.

Allen: Yeah, yeah. Ah, so good. Clovia, thank you so much for your time. This has been so good. I really appreciate it.

Lawrence: Thank you so much for having me.


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