As an infant, Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas emigrated from Greece to New York with his parents and two brothers in 1969 to escape a political dictatorship.
‘We went to New York for a better life,” said George Vithoulkas, the county manager’s father.
After living in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., for about a decade and a stint residing in Cleveland, the Vithoulkas family made their way to Henrico and have never left.
“It feels natural to be able to make people from other places feel welcome here,” said Vithoulkas, recalling memories of his father’s work colleagues being “downright hateful to him” over his father’s broken English.
Earlier this month, the Henrico school system surprised Vithoulkas by dedicating the HCPS Welcome Center, one of the first connections immigrant students and families make when moving to the county, to him and his family.
Established in 2006, the center has supported more than 7,500 children whose families represent over 120 countries as they navigate an entirely new landscape, language and culture.
The center’s home is at J.R. Tucker High School, which is brand-new. Tucker is the most diverse high school in Henrico, with students of color making up roughly 70% of the school population.
“A product of hard work, a strong family and an HCPS education, he [Vithoulkas] became a naturalized citizen, a J.R. Tucker graduate, a committed community member and an exemplary leader. Henrico County is a better place because the Vithoulkas family made that difficult journey,” Superintendent Amy Cashwell said during the dedication ceremony.
Renderings are set to be placed in the Welcome Center, telling the story of the Vithoulkas family coming to America. The HCPS John Vithoulkas Community Impact Award, with the county manager as the honorary inaugural recipient, will be awarded to future recipients “who embody the spirit of community and profoundly impact our community,” according to the award plaque.
George Vithoulkas started out working at a textile company and fixing cars before landing a job with General Electric, which brought his family to Henrico. Georgia Vithoulkas, the county manager’s mother, worked in a seamstress shop in Carytown and ended her career sewing for JoS A. Bank Clothiers.
“I’m overwhelmed. Just incredibly humble and incredibly proud, incredibly proud of what my parents did so many years ago,” Vithoulkas said during the ceremony.
Nearly 13% of Henrico residents are foreign-born, according to U.S. Census data.
Henrico’s Asian population, recorded at 9.7% according to 2020 census data, is one of the largest in Virginia. Statewide, 7.1% of Virginians are Asian, with Asian residents making up 4.6% of the Richmond region’s population. The county’s Hispanic population is 6.6%, compared with the state’s overall percentage of 10.5%.
To meet the needs of residents, the county has built more soccer and cricket fields; the libraries have bilingual storytime and cultural cooking classes (before the pandemic), including Filipino, Spanish and Mexican cuisines; monthly meetings are held with faith-based leaders; and when a community group needs support, the county responds in a meaningful way.
After massage business shootings in March that targeted Asian Americans in the Atlanta region during a year of mounting violence and hate speech against that population, the county extended its support to Henrico residents and small-business owners.
The county made stickers for the businesses to place on their front doors or windows, showcasing the support of the county. Teams of police, fire, public works and utility employees conducted walk-throughs of some businesses and gave recommendations on how to improve safety.
Julie Laghi, chair of the Asian American Society of Central Virginia, came to Henrico in 1985. Born in Singapore, Laghi lived in Australia and Italy before coming to the county.
Laghi said Henrico is very supportive of Asian American and Pacific Islander residents and since 1998 has supported the society she heads. On a Saturday afternoon in May, during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the society held a march for peace and harmony at Short Pump Park, where Henrico Police Chief Eric English and some officers, county department heads, and recreation and parks employees came in support.
When Muslim residents became anxious about the Trump administration’s travel ban, the county held a special meeting on a Saturday morning with no agenda, allowing for officials to listen to residents’ concerns. From there, community engagement efforts ramped up, as each county department was tasked with ensuring all residents feel a sense of place in Henrico, Vithoulkas said.
County language translation services expanded in 2016, while county libraries and recreation and parks began hosting more programming focused on the county’s diversity, and public safety agencies adjusted from being response-focused to becoming proactive community partners, Vithoulkas said.
In January 2020, he created a new position designed to lead all of the county’s diversity, inclusion and equity efforts.
Cristina Ramirez, an assistant library manager in Henrico who serves on the board of directors for the Asian and Latino Solidarity Alliance of Central Virginia, is working alongside county leadership to develop the My Henrico Academy, a program about how government works that is geared toward immigrants who come to the county.
While a program was in place ahead of the pandemic, Ramirez said a more robust curriculum is being developed. The cohorts will learn how the court system, recreation and parks, public utilities, social services and other county departments work and can educate their communities about the services.
For many immigrant families in Henrico, the HCPS Welcome Center is their first introduction to their new home.
In their initial visit, families go through the process of registering with the school system and learn about what American schooling is like; what expectations are, including code of conduct; and if they need to apply for free lunch, said Sarah Modrak, a K-12 English as a Second Language educational specialist for Henrico.
“This is our chance to really get the families what they need so that they can feel comfortable starting school,” Modrak said.
The center has two full-time Spanish-speaking interpreters and has contracted interpreters for a number of languages and a phone interpretation service that has over 200 interpreters available for the families coming to the Welcome Center.
More than 3,000 Henrico students are English learners who represent more than 100 countries and speak more than 80 languages, according to the school system’s website.
The center is seeing a growing number of English learners, although more concrete numbers will not be available until the end of the month, Modrak said.
She said the school system is preparing for Afghan refugee families who will seek support from the Welcome Center. The district works closely with refugee agencies, such as Commonwealth Catholic Charities and the International Rescue Committee. The agencies support the relocation of immigrants and particularly refugees, Modrak said, and so they work closely with the school system to help register and support the families with children.
“The patterns of immigration tend to change as events in the world change,” Modrak said.
In the past several years, the school system has seen a large number of Afghan families, while at a previous time there was an influx of Nepali and Egyptian families. In recent years, students of Spanish-speaking families are emigrating from Honduras, Guatemala and Venezuela while in the past many were from Mexico.
Vithoulkas, like the inaugural cohort of Holladay Elementary kindergartners, was enrolled in a dual-language immersion program in New York. He spent half his day speaking and learning in his native language, Greek, and the remainder of his day was in English. Holladay kindergartners, some of whom are native Spanish speakers, spend half their day speaking Spanish and the other half speaking English.
The Henrico library system offers a variety of supports for immigrant residents, ranging from Rosetta Stone to learn English, an online tutoring service for college preparation, résumé writing and career preparation. Weekly storytimes and ESL Conversation Cafes are available for families and adults to practice conversational English.
Immigrants, including people coming from Central America and Latin America, don’t understand that public libraries are available to the public, because in their countries libraries are for academics, normally tied to schools or colleges, said Ramirez, an assistant library manager at the Varina Library.
“The idea that you can go to a public library and spend time there with your kids and take a class in the digital media lab and practice English as a Second Language or do your homework or reserve a study room, they don’t even think that that’s something you can do,” she said.
Ramirez, whose mother is from Spain and whose father is Mexican American, also is chair of the library system’s IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism) Committee and is on the library’s equitability task force.
The IDEA committee creates programming for Latino or Spanish speaking, Asian and African American residents as well as education programs around mental health awareness and Alzheimer’s disease.
Programming for Hispanic Heritage Month, which is from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, includes Spanish language bingo for adults and discussions of books and films written and created by Hispanic filmmakers and authors.
“It’s not just advocating for immigrants and Latinos to use our services,” Ramirez said, “but I also feel like a responsibility as a professional librarian that we have a role in educating people that are of the dominant majority group to learn about the minorities in their community and the immigrants in their community.”