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Mary Coleman works to end generational poverty by helping the entire family

When the COVID-19 pandemic upended people’s lives, City of Promise, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit, pivoted to support families from creating virtual learning centers to launching new programs aimed at helping parents achieve their goals.

“The people we serve deserve consistent opportunities to reach their goals,” said Mary Coleman, executive director of City of Promise. “The idea that a pandemic was gonna somehow pause our organization’s intention to be available was not an option for me.”

City of Promise, which seeks to end generational poverty through education, serves children and their families in the Westhaven, Starr Hill and 10th and Page neighborhoods and seeks to end generational poverty by fostering a culture of achievement. Coleman has been with the organization since 2017 and at the helm since 2019. During that time, she expanded the organization’s staff and launched the new programs to support the whole family, among other shifts.

“We are opportunity brokers,” she said. “We try to find opportunities for children to thrive and to reach their potential.”

Within the organization’s footprint, there are nearly 300 children, 65% of whom live in public housing, according to its website. About three-quarters of the children live in single-parent households.

Coleman, the mother of seven children and grandmother to six, said she’s a mom to her core and wants to affirm mothers. She said she loves defending mothers and motherhood.

“I know every mother, no matter her income status, loves her children and wants what’s best for them, but low income women are often characterized as not that,” she said. “And that’s not right. It’s not fair. It’s incorrect. Because I see it every day. I see how hard they’re trying. I see how much they hate having to ask for help. And how much they wish they had job opportunities, but doors keep getting shut on them.”

In her role with City of Promise, she’s helping to open doors for the mothers and their children.

Before City of Promise, she worked as the development director for the Covenant School and Woodberry Forest School where she and her family lived for 23 years. Her husband, Joe, was an administrator at Woodberry Forest, eventually becoming Dean of Students.

Coleman said she always knew that she would end up devoting herself to helping low-income people toward the end of her career.

“My parents emphasized education to me, and I never lost touch with what poor people in America, especially poor Black people, face,” said Coleman, who was born in public housing but didn’t live there long. “Educational equity is so basic to survival in this country.”

She brought her fundraising skills to the City of Promise in 2017, increasing the organization’s budget and number of staff over the years.

“I’m trying to leverage my fundraising ability to put money in the hands of the people,” she said. “I don’t want to just hire a bunch of middle class people to serve poor people. If I’ve got $50,000, I want to hire somebody from here.”

Coleman said that she’s driven by a justice mindset and repairing historic harms. To Coleman, teaching children to read is a form of reparations because enslaved people were not allowed to learn to read.

“To me, everybody can get behind the idea that every child in America deserves to know how to read,” she said. “If a child knows how to read, they can do anything and be anything they want. But America purposely interrupted that beauty for a whole culture of people and we’re still trying to catch up. There’s a range of catching up. I’ve caught up. My family has caught up. But there are a lot of families that didn’t catch up, so I’m trying to help America repair what these folks deserve.”

City of Promise was founded in 2012 and has been largely focused on the children. Bill Shenkir, president of the nonprofit’s board of directors, said Coleman has helped shift the focus of City of Promise from children to the whole family.

“By empowering the entire family to learn, then you’re obviously improving the whole culture of the family and the children already involved in City of Promise initiatives,” Shenkir said.

He added that Coleman’s passion for the work has helped take the organization to the next level.

“She’s a visionary,” he said.

During the pandemic, Coleman and her team launched — Dreambuilers and Key — focused on helping parents achieve their goals related to education or improving their skill set.

“By empowering the entire family to learn, then you’re obviously improving the whole culture of the family and the children already involved in City of Promise initiatives,” Shenkir said.

In Dreambuilders, participants receive $1,500 over the course of the 16-week program and one-on-one coaching. In the Key program, parents participate for two years and receive $15,000 as they achieve longer-term goals such as pursuing a college degree.

“That little bit of stress relief for the parent to be able to pay some bills or use this money to improve their credit score, or to reach their goal,” Coleman said. “It’s like a light. When you’re struggling so much, we come in as sort of a light to lift some immediate burden so that they can focus on their long-term desires for their family, especially for their kids’ achievement.”

Both programs follow the family literacy model, which invites the whole family into the learning process so everyone gets stronger and reaches their goals, she said. As parents are working toward goals such as improving their skills to get a better job, the City of Promise team also coaches the children.

Coleman said that the goal is that kids whose parents are involved in these programs are going to be doing better.

“Because we’ve got the attention of these parents to talk about homework and heavy routine and being involved in extracurriculars,” she said. “All the things kids need to succeed now we’ve got these parents’ attention to be able to continue to send that message.”

Coleman said that the coach in the Dreambuilders program helps solve problems with the parents and keeps them motivated. Since the program started, they’ve graduated two groups.

“That sort of perseverance is what we all as humans need, but especially if you don’t have money, it’s hard to have it,” she said. “Now they can teach their kids because they themselves worked through something and came out on the other side successful.”

Cameron Moore, director of programming for City of Promise, said Coleman is willing to do anything for the sake of the organization.

“No task is too small or too big for her,” said Moore, who joined the nonprofit earlier this year.

He’s excited to see where Coleman takes the organization next.

“Her leadership is vital to the growth of our agency,” Moore wrote in his nomination of Coleman. “Not only does she care for our community, but she also cares for the teammates around her.”


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