We periodically spotlight a staff member or partner to help our readers get to know our mission and industry a little better.
This week we interviewed Darla Berry, Senior Director of Fund Development at Avenue CDC, a nonprofit in Houston, TX that builds affordable homes and strengthens communities. TSAHC has partnered with Avenue for several years through our Housing and Economic Assistance to Rebuild Texas (HEART) and Texas Foundations Fund programs.
Below is our interview with Darla.
Tell us a little bit about the history of Avenue CDC.
Avenue began in 1991, when a group of neighbors saw gentrification creeping into their historic neighborhood. They created an organization to develop affordable housing and preserve historic architecture in the Old Sixth Ward National Register Historic District, just northwest of Houston's downtown. Our CEO, Mary Lawler, joined in 1996 and contributed to Avenue’s success. Our early accomplishments stirred interest for expansion into surrounding neighborhoods. In 1999, the geographic scope broadened to include the First Ward—Houston’s Arts District—and continued to move into additional vulnerable neighborhoods north of downtown.
Avenue’s mission is to build affordable homes and strengthen communities and we accomplish this through three primary services: developing affordable housing, providing family asset-building programs and leading community initiatives that strengthen the impact of these programs in Houston’s greater Northside. As Senior Director of Fund Development, I oversee all our fundraising and communications.
TSAHC and Avenue CDC are partners through the Texas Foundations Fund grant program. Can you expand on the program our grant supports and any other grant-funded programs or services you provide?
Avenue is so grateful for the support from TSAHC through the Texas Foundations Fund for our annual home repair program, Avenue Builds Community (ABC). ABC makes aging houses safer, warmer/cooler, dryer and more accessible for the family, ensuring that vulnerable populations—especially seniors and people with disabilities—have homes that are safe, allowing them to age in place. We contract with professionals to repair or replace roofs, windows, plumbing and other critical repairs, and then coordinate teams of volunteers to paint the homes as needed, either interior or exterior.
The program helps protect families’ largest assets: preserving those assets for the children or grandchildren and creating generational wealth. The close proximity to downtown has made north Houston prime for development and gentrification. Residents who have lived in this neighborhood for generations need protection from displacement and from development that disrupts the fabric and character of the neighborhood.
You were also a recipient of a Winter Storm Uri grant we offered earlier this year. Tell us about the role your organization plays in responding to disasters.
As an anchor institution in the community, Houstonians and especially residents of Greater Northside trust Avenue to take steps to stabilize families and continue efforts to support vulnerable communities. This means staying in touch with residents and helping to address unmet needs.
After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Avenue mobilized to meet the vast needs of people displaced from their homes, providing disaster recovery housing counseling services for more than a thousand home owners and repairing more than 200 homes. Similarly, Avenue has been quick to adapt services and programs for the current COVID-19 public health crisis, conducting food and supply distribution, meals for children at Avenue multi-family properties and conducting vaccination outreach.
After Winter Storm Uri, Avenue collaborated with four other organizations in Houston to not only make the repairs needed to get water flowing back into the home, but—similar to Harvey—to take care of deferred maintenance issues and prevent future problems, making sure the homes were safe and sustainable.
As the neighborhoods you serve continue to change and grow, how are you all responding to this?
Our approach is to listen. We really try to listen to the needs of the community, while keeping an eye on trends and reports by trusted partners like the Kinder Institute. We sometimes need to adjust our response or our programs to fill a gap or fit a need that has surfaced. At the same time, we try to remain poised to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise. For example, after Hurricane Harvey and Winter Storm Uri, we realized that we needed to do more than just replace moldy sheetrock or repair a busted pipe. We had to look at the problem and the home holistically to make sure that we were creating resilience for the household to weather the next disaster.
What have you all learned after the challenges of the past 20 months, and have you all changed how you operate in response?
While the COVID-19 pandemic forced Avenue staff to work from home, there has not been any disruption in services or programs. On the contrary, the crisis created numerous new opportunities for Avenue to help vulnerable families with direct assistance and emergency funding. Avenue received more than $2.5 million to support COVID-specific initiatives including rent and mortgage assistance, emergency cash assistance, special community outreach and funding for technology, and safety modifications and supplies.
What is your favorite thing about the work you do?
I love the people. Connecting with people, whether they are clients, vendors or funders, is my favorite thing. And I love telling the story of our work, and making a real connection between our wonderful supporters to our clients and their families. Making connections is my favorite thing about fundraising and communications.
Which professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
I am very proud that I was able to be a large part of realizing a dream decades in the making—building our first ever headquarters, Avenue Center. We launched our capital campaign in 2016 and in 2020, we completed our beautiful new community hub in the heart of one of the neighborhoods we serve. Avenue Center houses Avenue’s programs and offices, is also home to a YMCA Children’s Academy, and will welcome a community health clinic in 2022.
What is the most impactful piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I have received and heeded a lot of advice in my 30+ years in the nonprofit world, so that is a tough question. But my dad — my hero — whom I lost just this past summer at the age of 94 — often said, “Put brain in gear before engaging mouth.” Really that amounts to listening and being thoughtful in your response. I like to let thoughts and ideas bake for a while to make sure they’re done.
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