A new ice cream shop in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, offers more than just delectable treats like locally-based, craft ice cream and traditional soft-serve. The mobile ice cream trailer also aims to be a place for members of a changing community to meet and get to know each other, and to be a source of jobs and opportunities for local youth.
Conceived by Lawson (McNeil) Wijesooriya ’98 in partnership with her neighbor Alfonso Clarke, a native of the Richmond area, The Neighborhood Scoop is a social enterprise effort that is the next step on a deliberate path Wijesooriya has chosen to live out with her family.
“I think this is something that is uniquely positioned to be a unifier in our neighborhood in a way a lot of other businesses can’t be,” she says.
Wijesooriya and her husband, Ramesh, a pediatrician at Virginia Commonwealth University, are part of a group of friends, predominantly white and middle class, who met at the University of Virginia. They moved into the Church Hill community – a majority African-American neighborhood with many residents at or below the poverty line – and began the work of connecting with neighbors and longtime community members in a way that would build trust and lasting relationships.
Like many urban areas across the country, Church Hill is experiencing the effects of gentrification, and Wijesooriya and her friends are working together with neighbors to engage in the public schools and work with officials on affordable housing issues. One of the ways she hopes to make a small positive change is through the ice cream shop.
“There are few things that are price-point accessible and culturally universal,” she says. “What does it mean to start a business that would predicate its success on trying to be a place that would intentionally market and sell to and serve in a customer service-oriented way to very disparate demographics?”
As the great-granddaughter of philanthropist Solomon Guggenheim, Wijesooriya acknowledges that her family legacy affords her the opportunity to take a chance on launching a local business where profits come second to community-focused priorities. But after a life-changing college spring break trip to Jackson, Misissippi, Wijesooriya became passionate about studying and living out her faith and values of racial reconciliation and social justice.
“I really don’t like thinking about things I’m not willing to do,” she says. “So we said let’s go and try to live this life. It’s complicated and hard and wonderful and joyful. I can’t say we are succeeding or making changes, but I believe we are living a very rich life.”
After a decade working with The Blue Sky Fund, a nonprofit that provides transformational outdoor educational experiences for underserved youth in the Richmond area, Wijesooriya decided to turn her dream of opening an ice cream shop into reality. But she says transitioning to the food retail world has not been without its challenges.
“It’s a very physical job,” she says. “You have to pay attention to temperature and electricity and how you are handling your product, where are you sourcing your materials. I have to know about butter fat content, freezers, grease, and machines. It is a very different energy learning how to custom-build a trailer and figure out what I need and want. I had no basis for knowing any of those skills.”
Down the road, Wijesooriya says, she can see herself returning to the educational world in some way, either with a school board run or working on educational policy on the local level. She attributes her experience at Lawrenceville to shaping much of who she is today, and she looks forward to returning for her 20th reunion with a group of friends she has remained close to through the years.
“I am so grateful for what I experienced at Lawrenceville,” she says. “What Lawrenceville gave me, the leadership skills I learned then, I can now bring to the table.”
We'd love to share your story with other Lawrentians. E-mail us here with your news or activities and we'll be in touch.