Former ‘river kid’ brings passion to outdoors-focused non-profit

August 20, 2014 · 3 minute read

EDITOR’S NOTE: Annie Bailey, a rising senior at St. Gertrude, interned with us at this summer. She had a blast exploring the area and working behind the scenes for the site. This is her final piece before school starts up again this week!

Although most associate the word “justice” with the law or a referee’s call during a sporting event, Giles Harnsberger, executive director of Groundwork RVA, believes justice has “everything to do with access and health.”

Volunteers with Groundwork RVA help clear a path through vine-choked woods. Credit: Groundwork RVA

Volunteers with Groundwork RVA help clear a path through vine-choked woods. Credit: Groundwork RVA

Harnsberger, a Richmond native, grew up as a “city and river kid,” often found running the trails around Forest Hill Park and the James River. After graduating from the Governors’ School, when it was at Thomas Jefferson, she left RVA and headed north to Massachusetts, attending Williams College and focusing on American studies. However, once she discovered urban planning, Harnsberger decided to change directions. The passion and longing to reconnect with the “city and river kid” she once was resurfaced with her new studies, and Harnsberger headed back south to Virginia.

Continuing her new passion for urban planning, Harnsberger enrolled in the Masters of Urban & Regional Studies program at VCU from 2008 to 2010. Upon receiving her degree, Harnsberger took a job as manager at Storefront for Community Design, a non-profit design center in RVA. There she enjoyed learning about the implementation of community ideas while working in various neighborhoods throughout Richmond. Her experience and the insight she gained working at Storefront led Harnsberger to a new challenge.

When Groundwork’s executive director position became available last fall Harnsberger jumped at the chance. “The opportunity came as a perfect job for my values and things I am passionate about,” she said.

Groundwork RVA, a non-profit franchise of the national Groundwork USA organization, launched in 2013 after Richmond bike enthusiasts and community development workers realized that a nonprofit could help leverage resources in the area. Groundwork RVA is eligible for Environmental Protection Agency and National Park Service grants that will be put to use improving the city. Groundwork chose to make it their mission to “foster Richmond neighborhoods and awaken their potential,” explained Harnsberger.

Together Harnsberger and Bray Wilkins, the organization’s Green Team leader, make up a staff of two, a number that they hope will reach five in the next couple of years. Groundwork also has a board of directors, a group of 21 people ranging from lawyers to city government members who are constantly brainstorming new project ideas.

A Groundwork RVA volunteer surveys the trail. Credit: Groundwork RVA

A Groundwork RVA volunteer surveys the trail. Credit: Groundwork RVA

With a small staff, volunteers are fundamental to Groundwork RVA’s projects and success. The non-profit works regularly with Richmond Community and Armstrong High School students who “are very aware of things that need to be better” and always give hope to Harnsberger, who finds it “rewarding” to work with volunteers.

When asked what project she was most excited about, Harnsberger laughed. “That is such a hard question,” she said, adding that Groundwork focuses on five different kinds of work — cleanups, education, planning/facilitation, crime prevention through environmental design, and trail building.

Harnsberger explained that right now Groundwork RVA is working on three different trails in underserved neighborhoods: Eastview Trail and Gateway, Cannon Creek ravine trail, and Reedy Creek Greenway. These trails will connect communities to each other as well as to parks and waterways, transforming abandoned spaces into something productive.

Because of her avid enthusiasm and passion for everything Groundwork does, Harnsberger couldn’t just mention one project. She also noted Groundwork’s proposed plan to complete 15 murals and 15 gardens across the city.

She added that any upcoming frustrations she may face are really just “challenges” and eagerly anticipates what is next for Groundwork RVA, an organization that “is not tied to any corporation and therefore (has) the power to make anything happen.”