After graduating from college this year, 22-year-old Danielle Rifka headed back to her parents' place in Waterford for the summer to sort through her career prospects. In a few days, she will move out and intentionally join Loudoun County's rural, homeless and poor population.
Rifka will have a place to stay in a new volunteer house, but she will be paid only a small stipend during a year of community service with the Windy Hill community, a low-income housing project in Middleburg. She will work mostly with single moms and children, who according to homeless specialists make up about 30 percent of the county's nearly invisible, transient homeless population.
"The homeless [here] are not the street [people] you see in D.C. pushing shopping carts," said Andrea Cossans, director of the Loudoun Transitional Housing Program, referring to many people who are mentally ill. "It's either the family or the underemployed."
On Sept. 7, Rifka and two volunteers from Michigan and Indiana will move into a house in Middleburg operated by the Good Shepherd Alliance, a 21-year-old nonprofit group that provides emergency housing and support for Loudoun's homeless. Called Theseus House, the Middleburg house is the first of its kind for volunteers in Northern Virginia, sponsors said.
The Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a faith-based version of the Peace Corps, operates similar houses domestically and abroad but predominantly in such urban settings as Washington and Baltimore.
Rifka said she was looking forward to a year of living "wisely and responsibly in a non-extravagant way." She will receive a stipend of $350 every two weeks to cover such expenses as food and phone bills.
The Middleburg house is in a growing housing project in a Virginia countryside town best known for its thoroughbred horses, fox hunts and mansions. On Friday, the Windy Hill community, where the volunteer house is located, opened 14 new rental units. The 104 residents of the expanding, low-income community represent about 10 to 12 percent of the town's population, said Stephanie Foran, an administrator of the Windy Hill Foundation, a private, nonprofit housing assistance program.
The county's most recent informal homeless count June 16 found 232 homeless people, 156 of whom were women and children. But authorities said this number does not necessarily reflect the number of people who live on the verge of homelessness and do not seek public assistance.
"Loudoun County's homeless double or triple up in private homes," Cossans said. "They don't hit the shelters until they've worn out their welcome with their family or friends."
Rifka, who grew up in England, said she never noticed the region's poor and homeless, who often reside in barns or cars, when she was a student at Loudoun Valley High School.
"I wasn't even aware that there were women's shelters close to me," she said.
Throughout her days at Taylor University, a nondenominational Christian college an hour north of Indianapolis, Rifka volunteered with several mentoring and after-school programs.
She also went on mission trips to Honduras, Trinidad and Ecuador. "That's where I really discovered my love for working with kids," she said.
Rifka and the two other volunteers at Theseus House will receive housing and transportation to and from their work across the county. Based on their stipends of about $700 a month, the volunteers could not afford to live in Middleburg or most parts of the county, said John Brothers, executive director of the Good Shepherd Alliance.
"You don't go [grab] your credit card," said Brothers, who volunteered for a similar one-year volunteer program in Brooklyn in 1996. "It's a lifestyle that's not material."
Homeless advocates said most of their colleagues and other county service providers, such as police officers and teachers, cannot afford to live in the county, let alone upscale Middleburg.
"Whenever I drive through Middleburg . . . I just have to ogle all the mansions and dream," Cossans said.
For Rifka, who was considering other volunteer programs across the country, her decision to live among the homeless and poor in Loudoun County was "very intentional."
"This is about people coming together and deciding to make certain sacrifices," she said.