Hope Starters of the Year


This year, we had the honor of recognizing two individuals who work tirelessly to offer hope and improve our community.

We are proud to toil at the intersection of hope and help to provide support services across the full life-cycle of complex behavioral health needs. But so many others come to that intersection to lend a hand. Our Hope Starter of the Year awards aim to honor those people who join together to empower individuals in our community with the tools, services, supports and care they need to meet and surpass personal expectations.

“RACSB is committed to starting hope in our community, by helping individuals who need extra assistance. We could not do this challenging—yet rewarding—work without a supportive community. We are especially grateful to those who go above and beyond in helping to bring hope to the lives of people with behavioral health needs or developmental disability.”

Executive Director Jane Yaun

The Hope Starters

April Burch

Developmental Disability Hope Starter of the Year
April Burch (center) receives a standing ovation at the Hope Starter 2019 Breakfast

Two years ago this week, April Burch won a gorgeous, bright red Nissan Rogue in a local radio station’s competition. She loved the car, but April asked Tim Pohanka if she could trade it in—for a donation to her son’s special education class.

Teachers at the school purchased the groceries for the weekly cooking program that provided students with disabilities vital life skills. April saw the program’s importance through the gains her son made but was shocked to discover the supplies came out of teachers’ pockets. She thought the Rogue’s sticker tag could cover groceries for her son’s class.

Mr. Pohanka wrote a check for the cooking program. April’s sacrifice and Pohanka’s generosity caught the attention of local media. Soon, teachers, para educators, and parents wanted to know how their child could participate in a cooking/life skills program.

In May 2018, Cooking Autism launched with a goal of helping five classrooms create and sustain life skills programs. In its first year, the nonprofit supported 21 classrooms. It has since grown to 54 programs. Hundreds of students with disability have learned important skills through this work—and it’s only getting started, thanks to April’s boundless energy, enthusiasm, and effort. We can’t wait to see what’s next for Cooking Autism.

For this effort, our Board of Directors has named April Burch the Hope Starter of the Year for 2019 in the area of Developmental Disability.

Rita Girard

Behavioral Health
Rita Girard celebrates at a photo booth at the Hope Starter 2019 Breakfast.

Rita Girard truly believes in the power of hope - hope for recovery for individuals with mental illness, hope for families whose loved one is battling addiction or mental health crises, hope for a community that supports kindness and provides assistance to all in need.

Rita recently retired after serving four years as the Executive Director of Mental Health America of Fredericksburg. During her tenure, Rita worked to build and strengthen community collaborations. She helped bring together MHAF, Mary Washington Healthcare, RACSB and others to host a series of successful community town halls and professional development trainings on major public health initiatives. These topics included the opioid epidemic, suicide prevention, and Adverse Childhood Experiences. She served on the newly formed Be Well Rappahannock Council and is a guiding force in its development and ongoing planning.

Rita is passionate about mental health and fostering community wellness. Her enthusiasm is contagious. Her work ethic is solid. Her ability to bring various stakeholders to the table is impressive. Rita recognizes that no organization and no one person can make significant changes alone. As Rita often says, let's all get in the boat and row in the same direction.

Rita is a light in a field that is often clouded in darkness and secrecy. She speaks openly about mental health challenges and seeks to break free of the stigma associated with mental illness and addiction. Rita sparked hope when she filled the role as Executive Director at MHAF and she continued to light a path within our community over the next four years. Even in retirement, Rita will continue to be a beacon of hope and inspiration

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