Casa Chirilagua to manage Four Mile Run Conservatory Center

Casa Chirilagua to manage Four Mile Run Conservatory Center

By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

Since its formation in 2009, the Arlandria nonprofit Casa Chirilagua has seen its programming, budget, staff and the number of families served steadily grow. Executive director and co-founder Dawnielle Miller estimates it currently serves around 90 children a week, a process that is complicated somewhat by the lack of a centralized space for the organization.

Casa — a faith based organization devoted to building community among Alexandria’s Latino population — currently uses space donated in-kind by two churches, with offices currently located in Fairlington.

But that is all set to change in September, as Casa will assume management of the Conservatory Center at Four Mile Run Park on Mount Vernon Avenue under a five-year lease. The city’s department of recreation, parks and cultural activities announced the new arrangement, which goes into effect September 1, last month.

At that time, the building will be closed temporarily while Casa installs an HVAC system and makes improvements to the interior. Under the agreement, the building still will be available for public use and rental, and it will continue to host events like the Four Mile Run Farmers and Artisans Market.

Casa began by offering an after-school program, and has since grown to include offerings for all ages. Now, it offers mentoring, community activities and summer programs among others.

“Our success revolves around relationships, and we’re community-led and community-driven,” Miller said. “We do our best to listen to the surrounding community and serve alongside the community where we are. We’re very passionate about people and about the place. We love Arlandria and want to really see this be a hub in the neighborhood for bringing people together for holistic change.”

The city reached an agreement with Casa after issuing a request for proposals last spring to solicit organizations interested in taking over management of the facility. The conservatory remains under city ownership, and parks officials see it as a mutually beneficial agreement.

“There’s considerable opportunity to partner with Casa Chirilagua on community programs, so it gives us a better ability to do that with programs and services in the Arlandria community,” said deputy department director William Chesley. “We’ve partnered with Casa Chirilagua on some programming in the past, and we expect to do even more, particularly in that Arlandria area. For the city and especially our department, we believe it’s a win-win opportunity for the residents, particularly in the Arlandria community.”

Currently, the facility often is used for events beyond the farmers market on a seasonal basis, although its lack of an HVAC system means the building is not conducive for use in the middle of summer or winter. It was previously a paint store that was acquired and retrofitted for community use by the city, which felt it should eventually be leased to another organization.

“The determination was made that if some community organization that really had a de- sire to get a space and was willing to make a commitment to develop that space for enhanced community use, it would be good for that purpose,” Chesley said. “At this point as a city, we would continue to use it season- ally and year-round for special events that we just use the conservatory for staging purposes.”

Miller said the centralized space will allow it to offer even more programming, including courses in literacy, finances and workforce development that would serve even more of the community.

She said the new space also will enable more partnerships with other organizations, as Casa looks to build on collaborations it has already fostered, including with the Alexandria Police Department and Sheriff’s Office.

“At the center of every- thing we do, we really believe in the power of relationships to transform communities,” Miller said. “We just really need to get to know each other and understand one another, and if we have more face-to-face interactions between members of the community and the local PTA, principals, the mayor, the sheriff’s office, the police, then it builds trust.”

In addition, Miller said she sees the conservatory as a place to help those in need, whether it be through support or as a safe space.

“Another thing that’s been expressed in our community is that many students are saying they need a quiet space to study so our students can excel,” Miller said. “Additionally, some of our programs and children are in vulnerable situations and are facing hardship, and we want to be present and provide a space to build a relational community and support these families and to be able to connect them to relevant services and resources that can help them overcome those hardships.”

Miller said the new arrangement that centralizes all of Casa’s offerings will help it work even more for the good of Arlandria, especially as its new location will be right in the thick of the action.

“We’re not a group that desires to re-invent the wheel, but we have some great existing services in the city of Alexandria, and want to bring them into the community so they’re even more accessible,” Miller said. “We hope it’ll be a gathering space to bring people together as we work together for the holistic building of our neighborhood.”