Northern Virginia Family Service: More than a Safety Net for 100 Years

Northern Virginia Family Service: More than a Safety Net for 100 Years

During the Great Depression, they handed out coal and coats. Now, it’s an array of services.

Head Start children in Arlington, one of the things NVFS supports in Northern Virginia.

Head Start children in Arlington, one of the things NVFS supports in Northern Virginia.


Volunteers distribute food at the NVFS food truck in Manassas.


Stephen Safoschnik and Claude DeHart, on the day in May that they moved out of the SERVE shelter in Manassas and into their own apartments.

Ninety-five years ago, Northern Virginia Family Service handed out coats and coal in Alexandria. Today, the organization has a much broader mission and geographic reach throughout Northern Virginia and – in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic – an increased need for its services. Those services include providing food to those experiencing hunger and shelter to those experiencing homelessness, offering mental health counseling to individuals and families including mothers with postpartum depression, offering legal services including to families separated at the border, helping young children get off to a good start, teaching job skills, connecting graduates to employers, and supporting foster care families.

NVFS has evolved over its nearly 100-year history, always remaining true to its mission of helping neighbors in need. That was true after 9/11 when it provided case management support to survivors of the Pentagon attack, it was true after Hurricane Katrina when residents of the gulf relocated to this region, it was true during the Great Recession and during last year’s government shut down.

“The remarkable thing is, since the pandemic began, even as most of our staff transitioned to working from home and offering our services remotely, there was never an interruption in those services,” said Kathleen McMahon, NVFS’s executive vice president for development and communications. “This is what we do. We help individuals, families, and communities in crisis. So, when COVID-19 arrived, we had the infrastructure, the staff, the programs, and the expertise to jump in.”

NVFS IS EVERYWHERE in the Northern Virginia area. With headquarters in Oakton, NVFS runs a Hunger Resource Center and SERVE family shelter in Manassas, a Multicultural Center and thrift shop in Falls Church, job skills center in Tysons Corner, and Early Head Start and Head Start programs at multiple locations from Arlington to Loudoun, for example.

During the pandemic, the Hunger Resource Center and SERVE shelter are open while other services are being offered virtually including tele-mental health. The largest food distribution center in the region, the Hunger Resource Center provides food on site and by food transportation trucks to more than 4,000 individuals, as well as to the 92-bed SERVE Family Shelter, annually. “As the HRC operations adjust to the pandemic, food distribution procedures have been modified to streamline the eligibility process, ensuring that our neighbors’ needs will be met quickly, while preparing support for new clients to ensure families do not go hungry,” said McMahon. “Additional food pick-up hours have been added to accommodate growing demand, and designated hours for seniors have been implemented to lower risk for those more susceptible to the virus.”

McMahon said they used to get more food donations, but current shortages are having an impact and the organization has had to purchase food. She is grateful for the support of the Capital Area Food Bank, and U.S. Foods, which donates excess food. Given the increase in new clients, NVFS is trying to balance the demand for food donations with the supply of food. Each family in need receives two weeks of food and hygiene supplies.

THE SERVE SHELTER is also still “client-facing,” said McMahon. “While most of the country has been advised to stay home, SERVE shelter staff have remained on the front lines and client-facing to ensure the shelter remains a safe, healthy, and stable environment for families. We work very closely with the Department of Health,” McMahon said. “We’ve added a lot of protocols with PPE’s [Personal Protective Equipment] and cleaning. Clients have been cooperative, and on the rare instance that someone tests positive with COVID-19, they are safely moved into a hotel, through a partnership with Prince William County. To date, there have only been a couple cases of people who needed to quarantine.”

Beyond its food center and shelter, NVFS has moved to virtual services for many of its programs during the pandemic. “We have been able to serve 200 of our clients with tele-mental health that is HIPAA compliant, for instance,” said McMahon. “We are transitioning our workforce programs to become virtual as well.”

More people need emergency assistance right now, which is why NVFS set up a special fund at the start of the pandemic. Its emergency financial fund was created in response to residents struggling to cover rent, medical bills, and utility bills because they had lost their jobs, had their hours reduced or faced other challenging circumstances, and could not make their payments. NVFS is grateful to its partners who have contributed to the fund including, so far, the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia, the Arlington Community Foundation, and United Way of the National Capital Area.

At no time since the Depression has the need for NVFS been as great as it is under COVID-19. With the “can-do” attitude that appears to be a hallmark of NVFS staff, McMahon says: “Though we cancelled our in-person spring ‘Road to Resilience’ gala, our online campaign demonstrates how eager residents of our community are to help their neighbors in need.”

Adds NVFS President and CEO Stephanie Berkowitz: “We have received overwhelming support from individual donors, corporate sponsors, and foundations. And while the online campaign has been very successful, we are still a long way from meeting the escalating need in our community.”

NVFS’s APPROACH is holistic. “We might see a client for one thing, but he or she may end up getting referred to another part of the organization because they need something else,” McMahon said. For instance, families seeking asylum may benefit from legal services as well as mental health counseling. Or a family in need of food may also benefit from job training. NVFS won’t abandon its clients midstream, either. As Bianca Molinari Anez says, (see adjacent story), “…we wrap up when we feel the client is at a healthy place.”

Many of NVFS’s clients are living with trauma, whether they have lost their job, experienced a mental or physical health challenge, or are facing deportation. Essential NVFS programs like family reunification or gang prevention lead to positive outcomes that are not only good for the individuals, but good for families and for the community.

In much of its work, NVFS uses a case management approach. They also frequently collaborate with other local nonprofits, government agencies and others to ensure clients have access to a broad range of resources. Donors appreciate these partnerships because it helps their donations go further.

“Our work never stops,” said McMahon, “particularly since we are seeing the mental health of everyone exacerbated by the virus.”

In addition to its dedicated staff of experts, NVFS depends heavily on thousands of volunteers who serve on the board and its committees, and in many other capacities. The organization currently has volunteers reading stories to young children virtually and cooking meals on weekends and dropping them off at the SERVE shelter. The website lists volunteer opportunities.

Jessica Clark, a Vienna resident who started out volunteering with NVFS and is now on the board of directors, said, “I started out working with them as a volunteer on the Marketing Committee, but they turned out to be such a great group of people doing such important work that I decided I wanted to make more of an impact and joined the board.” This is an organization where the director of the Healthy Families program, Nanci Pedulla, gets out and does deliveries to families herself, and who regularly encourages her staff to take mental health days so they don’t burn out.

NVFS sustains its operations with government grants and private contributions. It has received the Platinum Seal from Charity Navigator - which means it has the highest level of fiduciary responsibility and transparency. But with no gala this spring, and a full plate of COVID-19 crisis cases, it will lean heavily on the support of Northern Virginians who can afford to help. To learn more about NVFS, to volunteer, or to donate, see: