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AARP AARP States Virginia Livable Communities

AARP Community Challenge 2019 Grants Help Make Improvements in Virginia

AARP volunteer Erm
AARP volunteer Erm urged her hometown of Bedford to apply for a Community Challenge grant to help make neighborhoods safer for walkers and cyclists. Photo by Emily Elconin


By Tamara Lytle

For 66-year-old Erm, biking and walking in her hometown of Bedford, Virginia would be a great way to relieve the stress of parenting her teenage nephew.

But with no bike rack downtown or welcoming places to walk near her home, it just hasn’t happened much lately.

Then, Erm, an AARP volunteer who changed her name to a single moniker decades ago, heard about AARP’s Community Challenge grants and urged Bedford officials to apply.

In its third year, the program provides small grants to nonprofits and governments for quick-turnaround projects that help make communities more livable for all ages.

This year, two Virginia initiatives—in Bedford and Richmond—are among the 159 grant winners nationwide that received a total of nearly $1.6 million from AARP.

A Richmond nonprofit is using the money to build benches near bus stops, making it easier for older residents to use public transit.

And Bedford is adding bike racks downtown and upgrading concrete benches along a walking route, as well as adding sign-age and trash cans to one existing and two new walking trails.

Both projects had to be completed by Nov. 4.

The endeavors can be an especially big boost to smaller towns, said Natalie Snider, AARP Virginia advocacy director.

“It allows organizations to think outside the box,” she said. “We encourage it to be intergenerational, innovative and of immediate benefit. It’s not some long-term pie-in-the-sky idea.”

One of last year’s winning projects created a community garden in Richmond’s Green Park neighborhood with the help of older adults and youth, Snider said. It’s grown into an ongoing connection between the generations.

Improving city accessibility

This year’s Richmond project will add benches near bus stops in the lower-income neighborhood of Northside—giving older residents a chance to walk for exercise, take buses to doctors’ offices and reduce isolation.

One of the benches will sit near a senior housing complex, said Catherine Long, collective impact coordinator for the Richmond City Health District and facilitator for the community coalition Northside Strong, which focuses on addressing needs in the city.

Six Point Innovation Center, a member of the coalition, will hire area youths to design and build about six benches, which a walk audit for the neighborhood found were lacking.

“We hope to make taking the bus more accessible, which allows people to access more parts of the city,” Long said.

In Bedford, the town was already busy adding sidewalks, but the bike racks, benches and walking loops wouldn’t have happened as quickly without the Community Challenge grant award, said Mary Zirkle, economic development coordinator for the municipality.

The additions “make people feel connected to the community,” Zirkle said.

Erm, the AARP volunteer, is fired up to start a walking group.

“A lot of people want to stay in their homes as long as possible,” she said. “Having a livable community is important for that.”

Communities are encouraged to apply for grants next year. Learn more at

Tamara Lytle is a writer living in Northern Virginia.

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