To the east of Richmond stands Church Hill, an imposing embankment with a sweeping command of Richmond’s Shockoe Valley. Richmond itself was named for the view of the James River from atop the hill, a view, the stories say, that reminded William Byrd of the Thames River as seen from his ancestral home at Richmond-upon-Thames. Church Hill is also home to St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, and the site of one of the most magnificent old Virginia cemeteries I have yet seen.

On a more personal note, Church Hill is where my A.A. home group meets, every Thursday night at 7:30 p.m.

I add that last piece only to highlight the fact that I find myself walking around Church Hill at least once a week. It’s a charming neighborhood, sort of a shabby version of Georgetown or Old Town Alexandria, if you can imagine either of those swankier districts picked up and laid out over the hillscape of, say, San Francisco. Elegant brick townhomes, cobblestone alleys, tree-lined streets, genuine gas streetlights.

You get the picture.

But at the west end of Church Hill, at its highest point, on the site that looks out over the entire city of Richmond, stands an absolute monstrosity, a 70’s-style retro-futuristic building that once housed a radio station. The antenna, eighty feet tall if it’s an inch, still stands to prove it. I can’t paint a picture for you, and trust me, you wouldn’t want me to. The best I can do is to steer you in the direction of the city in Planet of the Apes, or maybe Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.

I used to think it was the ugliest building in the world, and wondered why it hadn’t been burned to the ground by the local neighborhood association. Then I found out what was inside. Now I think it’s the most beautiful building in Richmond.

That building sitting at the top of Church Hill houses a group called Childsavers.

Childsavers was founded more than eighty years ago as the Children’s Memorial Clinic in remembrance of Dr. McGuire Newton, a Richmond pediatrician who died while treating children all over the city during the flu epidemic in 1923. The Clinic opened its doors in 1924, with the express mission “to do all things necessary or desirable in the diagnosis and treatment of children for all manner and kind of physical or mental infirmities.”

The Clinic developed its niche early on, defining its focus as meeting the mental and emotional needs of children. Over the years, the Clinic has been closely associated with the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Richmond’s Memorial Foundation for Children, and its approach to the mental care of children has often been cutting edge. The Clinic was among the first facilities in Virginia to make use of residential programs, day programs and a range of outpatient treatment and prevention services for children.

In the mid-1990s, the Clinic extended its services off-site, going into community settings to make services more easily accessible to a population that struggles with transportation and other logistical issues. Partnering with schools, community centers, and emergency shelters, the Clinic maintains strong relationships with the health clinics and government agencies that work to serve needy children throughout the greater Richmond area.

Acting on the principle that early treatment is the key to preventing future mental health problems in children, the Clinic launched its ChildSAVE Trauma Response Program in 2004, changing its name to Childsavers in the process. The Trauma Response Program keeps mental health clinicians on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to respond to and treat children involved as witnesses or victims of traumatic events.

According to its website,, Childsavers partners with the city’s first responders, including the Richmond Police Department and Richmond Ambulance Authority, to allows its Trauma Response team to provide instantaneous emotional support and mental health services to youth, reducing the impact of violence on children by providing immediate on-site mental health response services to children affected by violence or trauma.

That’s the official party line. A better way to explain what these mental health professionals do is to say they go to crime scenes throughout Richmond to talk to and treat children who have just witnessed someone, usually a loved one, die a violent or traumatic death, usually murder. In 2007, Childsavers did this at 134 different crime scenes, treating 285 children affected by a traumatic event.

Follow-up treatment can last months, even years, and includes patient assessment, treatment planning and psychiatric evaluations and counseling. Treatment for the younger children also involves play therapy, including sand tray and art therapy, as well as counseling sessions for parents, caregivers, siblings, and extended family members.

I recently heard a wonderful story about Childsavers. It seems a friend of mine was escorting some executives from Capital One through the Childsavers facility several years ago as part of a pitch for grant money from the corporation. As she was reciting all the wonderful facts about the program, though, she noticed that two of the executives seemed preoccupied with the walls in the reception area.

These walls were covered, floor to ceiling, with pictures drawn by the children as part of their art therapy. Some were gloomy, dark, violent. Some were gray and washed out, depressed. Some were cheerful, full of “shiny happy people.” The whole range was there.

The executives asked about the pictures, and my friend told them about the art therapy, how it’s used to provide a creative, non-verbal, non-threatening way for children to work through some of the emotional residue of the murders they’ve seen.

She told how art therapy is especially helpful when children develop problems with verbal expression, a common symptom for victims of traumatic events. She recounted a few success stories of children who were able to use art therapy to overcome their tragedies, and who were back leading healthy, normal lives.

The executives stared at the pictures, hundreds of them, fraying at the edges, stuck to the walls with yellowed, aging tape.

One of them leaned over and whispered conspiratorially

“You know, we’re moving our corporate headquarters next month. We’ve got a warehouse full of ‘corporate art’ and, just between you and me, not all of it is going to make the trip. We’re talking museum-quality frames. Interested?”

My friend jumped at the chance. Capital One donated dozens of paintings and, in my friend’s words, they “kicked out the corporate art” and mounted all the children’s pictures in gilt-edged museum-quality frames, where they hang to this day.

By the way, I just love the phrase “kicked out the corporate art.”

When they saw their pictures hanging like the priceless works of art they really were, the children stood a few inches taller, walked a little prouder, and smiled a lot more.

And I have to say, if I ever get a credit card again, it’s going to be from Capital One.

What’s in your heart?

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