A number of Arlington non-profits cancelled their major spring fundraisers due the pandemic. Instead of canceling their 12th annual fundraiser, Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR) of Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church decided to hold their annual Second Chance breakfast online.
Dr. Kathy Dwyer, Chair of the OAR Board and pastor of Rock Spring United Church of Christ, says it was challenging. They made the decision to go ahead less than two weeks before the April 2 event. She said OAR didn’t have any audio-visual people on the OAR staff. Elizabeth Jones Valderrama, Executive Director of OAR, says it was a stressful experience. “But we were lucky to have a great team, and volunteers jumped in.” She adds that they did a dry run the day before and found some glitches.
Jones Valderrama says they decided to go ahead because, “We know this brings joy to people who attend and we wanted to be able to do that in these unprecedented times.” In addition, she explained the program participants are really struggling and needing the OAR services, and this is the biggest fundraiser by far each year. “We get calls every day for help with food, rent and other necessities.” And they were already $30,000 over budget.
Dwyer said they tried to follow the same format as in previous in-person fundraisers where they shared the creative and inspiring stories of OAR participants who had experienced incarceration. Jones Valderrama, did a live welcome to the breakfast from her home, then incorporated a couple of prerecorded small videos of OAR stories. Dwyer did the ask for support at the end. They incorporated a couple of polls where people could participate by answering questions, first with fun things like “is your pet watching with you,” and then on to more serious questions about racial justice. The answers were immediately tabulated. This all got combined into the program.
Dwyer says last year’s breakfast at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington had 600 attendees and raised $110,000 while this year’s online breakfast had 200 attendees in a Zoom chat format and raised $30,000. “Overall given the timeframe and everything else, it was remarkable.” She says a number of new people learned the OAR story.
But Dwyer explains the breakfast was disrupted “right off the bat by a speaker in space” mouthing racial epithets in the Zoom meeting. Dwyer explains as each speaker joins a Zoom group, they are identified by name and picture. A number of strange account names started appearing. These people started speaking racial slurs, and the administrator of the call immediately started kicking them out. But there were so many of these interruptions “that we couldn't keep up and had to shut out the entire group from chatting.
“The disturbing thing was that our Executive Director, who is a person of color, was talking about racial disparities just at the time these calls were coming in.”
Jones Valderrama says “imagine white supremacists up at 7 in the morning saying super aggressive things.”
But she said she wasn’t surprised. She expected something like this might happen because of common interactions in the Arlington and Alexandria communities. “These things happen to us every day.” She says people want to touch her hair to see if it feels different or her body, like a person of color isn’t a real person, or they argue back at her in an aggressive way. Having a conversation about race is uncomfortable.
OAR was founded in 1974 to work with men and women returning to the community from incarceration and offering alternative sentencing options through community service with race equity as a core goal.
In 2019 OAR worked with 708 men and women who had experienced incarceration as well as 1,334 adults and youth performing community service. They sponsor reentry programs beginning with assistance while still in prison and following with services as the person transitions successfully into the community. Since last fall OAR has hosted four intensive Undoing Racism workshops for 180 people, most of whom live in Arlington and Alexandria.
For further information, visit their website at www.OARonline.org