Story and Photos by Rob Paine, RSVP-Northern Virginia
“The reason I love RSVP volunteers is because you guys have the work ethic and you have the life experience and the understanding; you know that everything is not black and white, there is a lot of grey. You bring that welcomed experience and knowledge from not just your job but from working with people and understanding human nature,” says Susan Alger, director of volunteer and community engagement at Cornerstones.
For nearly the last half century, Cornerstones, a nonprofit based in Reston, has been helping neighbors by providing support and advocacy for those in need of food, shelter, affordable housing, quality child care and other human services.
According to Susan, Cornerstones works with 6,000 volunteers to accomplish this mission in its service area which includes most of Northwestern Fairfax County.
Susan has been with Cornerstones for about eight and a half years. First, she was a volunteer manager at the Embry Rucker Community Shelter in Reston. Now she’s the leader of Cornerstones’ volunteer program which consists of four staff, managing 6,000 volunteers annually.
“Our mission is pretty simply but also pretty complex,” Susan says. “We believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to secure housing, to see their families grow and thrive, to find work that is meaningful for them.”
Susan says Cornerstones often first meets its clients during what is the most difficult time of the clients’ lives, “when they are in crisis, when they have nowhere to go, when they have no food to put on the table,” she says. “Ultimately, we want to empower everyone, especially the most vulnerable people in our community, to reach stability and to have hope for the future that they can do better in their lives.”
Cornerstones supports a variety of programs, some that are run in partnership with other nonprofits, agencies and businesses. Cornerstones’ programs include the Embry Rucker Community Shelter, assistance services and pantry program, the Laurel Learning Center, the Herndon Neighborhood Community Center and five neighborhood community centers based at under resourced communities around Reston, just to name a few.
Despite living in a prosperous region, the number of residents needing help is large and continues to grow, according to Susan.
“Many people in our area, hardworking families, some juggling more than one job, are one paycheck away from homelessness. Often it’s ‘do I pay rent or put food on the table for my family,” Susan says. She says childcare alone can take up to 50% of a working parent’s income in Northern Virginia.
Sometimes a client’s first contact with Cornerstones is at a food pantry or shelter because they have nowhere else to go, according to Susan.
The numbers in Cornerstones’ service area clearly indicate the great need that exists. According to Cornerstones’ figures:
One in five people in its service area require help just to meet their basic requirements for food and shelter;
Approximately 700 people were offered emergency shelter at the Embry Rucker Community Shelter in 2017 and
In 2018, Cornerstones anticipated serving 15,000 neighbors in need of housing, food, childcare or financial assistance, including 4,000 families and 6,000 children.
To view a short RSVP-Northern Virginia podcast titled “Cornerstones, In Their Own Words,” featuring Susan Alger, please click on the video above.
Cornerstones anticipates that in the next 15 years, there will be another 3,000 new households in its service area with extremely low or low incomes, according to Susan.
Cornerstones has a variety of volunteers opportunities (mostly located in the Reston and Herndon areas). Currently, the greatest needs for volunteers at Cornerstones are those who will support its youth programs and job-readiness program. Susan also hopes to expand the use of volunteers in administrative roles at Cornerstones’ headquarters and at their area facilities.
She says Cornerstones’ opportunities are available all year long and include short term and long term roles. Cornerstones also run several seasonal programs and events including its Gifts for Kids drive during the holiday season, which a group from RSVP took part in December group service project.
Susan says, “RSVP volunteers are also great ambassadors and supporters of our organization.” “They come prepared to put in the work. They tend to know more than average about the organization and have some idea what they want to do,” she added.
Cornerstones is one of several nonprofits across Northern Virginia that RSVP partners with that expands the social safety net for those in need and for those looking to get back on their feet, according to Carly Hubicki, Volunteer Specialist with RSVP-Northern Virginia.
“We are proud to partner with organizations like Cornerstones, New Hope Housing and United Community Ministries,” Carly says. “These outstanding nonprofits and the volunteers who support them give individuals hope and a chance to enjoy a better standard of living.”
Why does Susan think it important for seniors and retirees to volunteer?
“I think it’s important to volunteer and to keep active. When you’re helping someone else, you cannot feel sorry for yourself, and you have something to give. Every volunteer has something to contribute. It (volunteering) makes you feel good, it keeps you healthy, it gives you purpose in life. I see my volunteers engaged and feeling that they are part of the community,” she says.
To be part of RSVP and volunteer with Cornerstones, please call Carly at RSVP at 703-403-5360.