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HOLMBERG: One family takes one small bite out of a huge, generations-old problem

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RICHMOND, Va. -- The images from Baltimore earlier this week are similar to those from the same city almost 50 years ago, when the National Guard was called in to quell the ’68 riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Worse, the city has the same amount of poverty as it did then, in many of the same neighborhoods. It’s like nothing has changed, despite being a minority-run city with a black police chief, mayor and a majority-minority city council and police force and countless dollars pressed into the wounds there.

It’s so similar to Richmond, which has a the same demographics and the same generations-old run of poverty and poverty-related problems (illegitimacy, illiteracy, substance abuse, crime, violence and risky encounters with police).

All this old history fresh again . . . why can’t we seem to do anything meaningful about it?

Meanwhile, the New York Times published a powerful report about “missing black men,” describing the vast number taken out of daily life by death or incarceration.

Our Melissa Hipolit focused on one local city (Highland Springs) mentioned in that report Wednesday at 11 p.m.

How do you address the bedrock problems that lead to these issues? The scope seems so vast – where do you start? Can we as individuals do anything?

I got a chance to visit with Ken and Becky Peters Wednesday afternoon at their home at 209 Dundee Avenue in South Richmond. They and their six children deliberately moved into this neighborhood years ago because “I kind of had a grandiose vision of helping to bring some racial reconciliation,” Ken recalled. “But it didn’t take me long to see how overwhelming that is.”

He remembers a vivid dream – a delivery truck rolling by in front of their house. A young African-American boy was rising up out of the bed of the truck, like he was being kidnapped and hauled away to his doom. He needed help.

“I knew I had to do something,” Ken said.

I met the Peters family several years ago, while doing a story about them taking in a young man from the neighborhood  whose mother wasn’t in a position to keep him there so he could finish high school. He had been practically living at the Peters’ anyway, so they took him in. That young man is finishing college now. They have since taken in two other children from the neighborhood.

But I visited this day to see their reading club. Every Wednesday, neighborhood kids from near and far come for dinner, shared reading lessons and life-skills training, discussion groups about the definitions of love, forgiveness, respect and friendship, and then some dessert.

There were 20 or so kids there. Boys and girls – with tons of energy. It’s like controlled chaos sometimes, Ken admitted.

But they have plenty of volunteers.

It was pretty amazing to see the children reading and helping each other to read in small groups in every room of the house.

I hope you get a chance to watch the video and see how this all works. (They have other functions at their house. So much stuff is going on, they bought another house around the corner to actually live in since the last time I visited.)

Are they saving the city?

Hardly, Ken said, noting that there are other people doing similar things.

But just think, he said, if there was a small army of people who would “take a kid or a few kids and just spend time with them. We could really make a difference.”