WEYERS CAVE — As a child, Colleen Pendry was never sure when she walked in the front door after school if she should pack up and move. One of five children raised by a single mother, Pendry and her family never had a place to call home. Paying the rent was always difficult, and when her mother didn’t have money, the landlords lacked patience.
“There’s this constant movement,” she said. “Never settle down.”
Pendry now works at Blue Ridge Community College, wearing many hats. She is an adjunct professor, School of Collaborative Diversity Officer, and Title IX Coordinator, among other titles. When she was asked about a possible demonstration of a photo exhibition called “This House” about the insecurity of housing, she immediately agreed. She lived the life shown on the show, and she knew the students at the school did too.
“These stories are the stories of our students,” Pendry said. “We have students who live in their cars. We have students with parents living in hotels. We know that.”
Pendra likes a phrase she once heard – the shortest distance between two people is a story. Many people like to hide these stories, but she feels it is important to share them with the community. She wanted to share this photo exhibit with the BRCC school community.
Since the beginning of January, the photos have been hanging in the student center named after Hauf at the school.
The exhibition was created by the Central Blue Ridge Community Foundation and photographer Kate Simon. Each year, the organization distributes grants, scholarships and awards to numerous organizations and individuals in Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta, Highland and Nelson counties.
The Community Foundation celebrated its 30th anniversary last November, but instead of holding an event to pat itself on the back, officials wanted to use the opportunity to make a difference. They researched various issues in society, but one kept popping up—housing insecurity.
Housing is every family’s number one expense, and those working with the Community Foundation felt that if there was one place they could make a difference, it was devoting their time and attention to this particular issue.
“That’s what led us to start this project and the other work we’re doing around housing,” said Dan Layman, president and CEO of the Community Foundation.
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Calls to the Valley Homeless Connection hotline in 2022 revealed some alarming numbers for those struggling with housing in the cities of Waynesboro, Staunton and Lexington, as well as Augusta, Rockbridge and Highland counties.
1422 people need housing assistance, including 260 children. 490 calls were received from citizens who do not live in places intended for human habitation, 138 – in hotels, 357 – from those who experienced violence in the family.
“There are all these needs that we see every day in our community,” said Miriam Burrows of the Foundation, “but they continue to point out that if you don’t have a roof over your head, how can you move forward and address any other needs in this community?”
This House Project, which is not only a photo exhibition but also a podcast series, was created from an interview with Chris Lassiter, who was hired as the Foundation’s Director of Community Engagement in January 2022. A former journalist, Lassiter did what journalists do—meet people and ask their stories.
“At the time, the show wasn’t even a concept,” Layman said. “But Chris would come back and say, ‘I have to tell you about someone I just met’ and ‘I have to tell you their story.’ And he encouraged us with the possibilities of sharing these stories more widely.”
Around the same time, Lassiter began listening to an NPR podcast about housing insecurity in Las Vegas. As the 30th anniversary of the community approached, the idea of a local project began to develop.
“We decided that since we had already recorded so many stories of homelessness for our own use, what if we brought along our friend and fellow photographer Kate Simon to tell the story of homelessness in local areas through photography.” Lassiter said.
Simon felt a personal connection to the project because she had experienced some of the situations discussed in her own childhood. She worked to get photos not just of those currently experiencing housing insecurity, but of those who have lived through it — Lassiter calls them stories of redemption — and those who are helping to find solutions.
One of these people is in the last group Alison Henry, Outreach Officer, Valley Community Services Council. Lassiter and Simon went to a homeless camp in Waynesboro with Henry.
“She was one of the ones we were allowed to photograph her face,” Simon said of Henry. “A lot of what draws people in and gets their attention is your eyes, the vision of the eyes. They say it’s the window to the soul, and so you really see her dedication, her compassion on her face.”
Then Burroughs created a website to host the photos and podcasts, and it all just came together. The website is associated with Community Foundation website cfcbr.org.
“We did 12 photo shoots,” said Simon. “We’re not done yet. This is not even the tip of the iceberg. It’s just a couple of separate stories that we felt could represent all the pieces, but there’s so much in between.”
The vision of the expo, according to Layman, is to educate the community about people experiencing housing insecurity and their needs. He said communities usually address these needs by throwing money at it, but it’s rarely based on compassion.
“Let’s first develop compassion as we begin to bring partners together to think about what the solutions should be,” Layman said.
Pendry sees this project reaching far beyond the Shenandoah Valley.
“It’s phenomenal, but it doesn’t stop there,” she said. “I could see this exhibition as a road show for every community college in the system. It’s 23. And I’ll be driving.”
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— Patrick Hite is The News Leader’s education reporter. Story ideas and tips are always welcome. Contact Patrick (he/him/his) at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @Patrick_Hite. Subscribe to us at newsleader.com.