For nearly five decades, Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project, Inc (SERCAP) has earned a reputation at the state, regional, national, and international levels for providing expert service in the fields of water and wastewater infrastructure, housing, and community development.
What began as an attempt to bring safe drinking water to low-income rural residents of Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, has grown into an agency which is directly responsible for bringing safe drinking water, environmentally sound wastewater disposal facilities, housing rehabilitation, and community development assistance to approximately 913,000 households per year, throughout its seven state service region.
It all started in the mid 1960s when outreach workers from a fledgling anti-poverty agency called Total Action Against Poverty (TAP, now known as Total Action for Progress) surveyed the rural communities of the counties surrounding Roanoke City to learn the most pressing needs of the low-income residents. The need for reliable access to clean, safe drinking water, was top among the responses, they were hearing over and over again.
At the time, low-income families in TAP’s service area were bailing water from contaminated creeks and springs, catching rainwater in buckets, and/or buying water at the general store in pop bottles.
Outreach workers identified at least 500 low-income families for whom access to safe drinking water was a critical issue. By 1968, a group of community representatives from the five counties in TAP’s service region organized the Demonstration Water Project (DWP). They received a grant from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to fund a program to help low-income families in the area gain access to a safe water supply. During the period from 1970 to 1975, the Demonstration Water Project developed water systems in 10 rural communities using a simple methodology. Communities in need of assistance were identified and groups of community residents were organized to address their water problems. These residents became the local non-profit, stock-owned water companies in their communities and were trained by DWP staff.
DWP helped these communities develop water projects, including: obtaining financing, gathering the requisite official approval, and contributing engineering services. Once the water systems were completed, officers of the non-profit corporation would manage, operate, and maintain the systems. Officers of the non-profit corporations would also read meters, prepare and issue bills, and collect fees to assist with running their water companies and to repay their FmHA loan.
The first grant for the new Demonstration Water Project in Roanoke, Virginia was intended to bring water service to rural communities in five Virginia counties. As the federal OEO recognized the impact the program could have nationwide, it wanted the project to design training in order to replicate the same process used in rural Virginia.
In early 1972 OEO funded the Demonstration Water Project with $6 million over a three year period to implement a national program. This national project, funded through the Health Services Division at OEO, planned to identify community action agencies and other human service agencies around the country to play the same role as TAP and DWP in the development of water projects. In 1973, the National Demonstration Water Project was formed.
By 1975, with the expiration of the three-year DWP grant, NDWP received continuation funding from the Community Services Administration (CSA), the successor to OEO. At this time, DWP incorporated as the Virginia Water Project. Then in 1977, NDWP received funding for the first Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), which established regional technical assistance centers around the country to assist rural communities in developing water and wastewater projects.
After two years of meetings, the Midwest Assistance Project (MAP) was selected as the first RCAP demonstration site. The CSA selected the Virginia Water Project model as one of several which were recommended to the newly funded RCAPs. In 1989, NDWP formally became the Rural Community Assistance Program, Inc. (RCAP).
Today RCAP is a national network of non-profit organizations dedicated to empower and assist rural low income people to improve the quality of life in their communities.
The network has six regional RCAPs:
- Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project, Inc. (SERCAP) — Southeastern Region
- Communities Unlimited — Southern Region
- Midwest Assistance Program (MAP) — Midwestern Region
- WSOS Community Action Commission — Great Lakes Region
- RCAP Solutions — Northeastern Region
- Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) — Western Region
Virginia Water Project’s first RCAP program proposal was funded in 1979. The states involved in the new region were: Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
By 1982, VWP had formed a partnership with the Ford Foundation to fund a loan program which now provides a funding pool to finance water and wastewater facilities, housing development activities, and community development projects.
In 1993, Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project, Inc. (SERCAP) became the successor to the Virginia Water Project.
Today, SERCAP has partnerships with the Office of Community Services in the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, USDA Rural Development, the Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA), the Virginia Department of Housing & Community Development (DHCD), state environmental offices, and many other state and local government departments.