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Campagna Center Celebrates 60 years

The girls were dressed in black with African-print sashes. As they walked in front of the audience at the Campagna Center, they exchanged a few furtive giggles. One girl whispered into the ear of another. Slowly, they walked to where the audience could see them. Then they began to fly.

I believe I can fly.

I believe I can touch the sky.

I think about it every night and day.

Spread my wings and fly away.

When the performance from the Polk Elementary School's Campagna Kids dancers was over, the audience erupted into applause. As the girls walked out of the room, the roar of approval became louder and louder. Maury Elementary Principal Lucretia Jackson, who was being installed as a board member of the Campagna Center, told them how wonderful they had performed; the girls smiled as they soared out of the room.

The concept of flight from adversity — helping underprivileged children overcome their circumstances — became the central theme of the Campagna Center's 2005 annual meeting on Monday. Outgoing chair Lavern Chatman was clearly moved by the Polk students' performance.

"That song is beautiful, and it's what we try to do with our enrichment programs every day," said Chatman. "These children need to believe that they can fly, and the Campagna Center helps them to believe that every single day."

The students were members of Campagna Kids, an enrichment day care program for more than 700 Alexandria children between the ages of 5 and 12. The program offers childcare before and after school with an emphasis on enriching children academically and socially.

Mayor Bill Euille took the floor to address the audience.

"I've been believing since I was knee-high to a butterfly that I can fly, and I still believe it because there's a lot of things I want to do," said Euille. "But the Campagna Center has been flying for so many years, and I'd like to thank you for all that you do for the citizens of Alexandria."

THE CAMPAGNA CENTER was founded in 1945 as the Alexandria Young Women's Christian Association. It separated from the national YWCA structure in the 1970s and was known as the Alexandria Community Y until 1989, when it was renamed the Campagna Center to honor the memory of the late Elizabeth Anne Campagna, the executive director who led the center for 25 years.

It began in 1945, when a group of local women and civic leaders started the YWCA. At the time, the organization described its mission as "putting down sturdy roots in the real needs of the women of this booming community."

From its inception, the organization was a leader in progressive social values. One early document stated that the YWCA "is the first and the only place in the city where women may gather and carry on their activities without regard to race or creed." Some of the first classes offered by the YWCA included Manners, Hygiene, Handicrafts, Bridge and Badminton. At the organization's first buildings — located on Cameron Street and Alfred Street — girls from 12 to 35 learned and played together at the YWCA.

THE CLUB took great strides to promote racial integration. As early as 1950, the club sponsored Brotherhood Sunday and a World Fellowship Tea. The forward-thinking agenda of the 1950s-era YWCA extended into social service as well, and both buildings offered semi-permanent and transient beds.

In 1961, the organization gained Elizabeth Ann Campagna — and the club would never be the same. Campagna became the program director, using her position to act as a driving force for community programs and social services for the next 20 years. Friends and co-workers knew her to be a charismatic visionary, an inspiration to anyone concerned about the welfare of children. Under her leadership, the YWCA expanded its membership and influence.

In 1968, Campagna established the Women's Correctional Program in response to an Alexandria Judge Stanley King, who said he "experienced qualms of horror when forced to sentence a young woman to the Alexandria City Jail." The program provided support for women inmates through friendship and craft activities.

At the same time as Campagna was working with women prisoners, the YWCA began operating the city's Head Start program. Created by the Lyndon Johnson administration, Head Start was administered at the federal level by the Community Action Program to provide instruction for disadvantaged preschool children. The YWCA lobbied to get the federal contract — and today the Head Start program continues to be administered by the Campagna Center.

"Any other non-profit could have come forward and said that they wanted to run Head Start, but the Campagna Center was the only one way back then that did," said former City Manager Vola Lawson. "And from the beginning, they possessed not only the administrative ability to run it, but the ability to attract good people to work in the program and to go to the general community to help raise funds."

The Campagna Center's goals for the Head Start program include improving social competence, learning skills and health of low-income children. Services include cognitive and language development, medical, dental, mental health services and nutritional support. Parental involvement includes both volunteer participation and employment of parents as Head Start staff.

At least 90 percent of Head Start children come from families with incomes at or below the poverty line, and at least 10 percent of enrollment slots in Virginia must be available to disabled children. The federal government provides $7,092 a year for every child.

U.S. Rep. James Moran, who attended the Campagna Center's annual meeting on Monday, said that Head Start funding may still have some hurtles in this year's budget process.

"Republicans want to redefine it and block grant it," he said, noting that a coalition had formed to prevent changes to the program. "I think there's just too much grassroots support for Head Start, and they're going to have problems if they want to make the kind of changes they've been talking about because it would destroy the most important part of the program — parent involvement and focus on the family."

HEAD START gave the organization a new direction in the late 1960s, and rekindled a sense of purpose. In 1973, Elizabeth Anne Campagna and the board of directors separated the local chapter of the YWCA from the national organization, creating the Alexandria Community Y. Under its new organizational structure, several new programs were created to help children throughout the 1970s.

The 50 More or Less program created a support group for women and families coping with mental illnesses. The Extended Day Care program, which later became Campagna Kids, began in 1977 to provide enriching childcare. The Wright to Read Program provided reading help to disadvantaged students.

In 1982, the center moved to an 19th-century building that was originally known as the Washington School. From 1889 to 1954, thousands of young Alexandrians attended classes in this building. In 1955, the building became the headquarters of the Alexandria City Public Schools administration — the scene of some of the city's most controversial decisions about desegregation.

When Campagna announced that she would step down as the executive director of the Alexandria Community Y in 1987, it was the end of an era. Campagna had transformed the organization, giving it a purpose and a vision that made the organization a lasting Alexandria Institution. Two years later, the Alexandria Community Y was renamed the Campagna Center in her honor.

In 1991, shortly before her death, Campagna praised the organization saying its members were "standing on the shoulders of a noble band of preceptors, now looking for the lofty, the original, the restoring, the stimulating, focusing as it does on a world crying for intelligent caring."

"THE FUTURE of this community depends upon how we take care of the present," said incoming Campagna chair Lindsay Hunter. "We must realize the importance of the west end, which represents the future of our community."

Hunter wants to use her new position to build upon the work of the past, responding to the changing needs of the city.

"Children in our programs speak more than 60 languages," she said. "We must continually change and adapt to be an effective organization."

The spirit of perpetually changing to meet Alexandria's needs has been a constant theme in the history of the organization.

"I'm very proud that the Campagna Center has never frozen in place, afraid to admit when things weren't working," said Executive Director Katherine Morrison. "Losing programs that aren't working takes planning and commitment too. And the Campagna Center is the kind of organization that is willing to adapt to meet the changing needs of the community."