Tuesday, November 30th, 2010
“My family has a proud tradition in this city. Until 1968, we owned two corner stores, one on Benning Road and the other on Florida Avenue, that were real hubs for the community. People would go there to socialize and pick up what they needed. At the time, my family even extended credit to people who wouldn’t get paid until the end of the week or month. That was the kind of place it was, and it was built on their close relationships with the community. Because of the riots and economic hardship, my family closed the place a year before I was born in 1969. I suppose I may have worked in the store, but I pursued education instead.
“When I became of age, I went to Howard University where I was a third generation Howardite. I had some good experiences up there and that really cultivated my love for the city. When I graduated, I couldn’t find a job, so I started substitute teaching in D.C. Public Schools. Through that, I developed a love of early childhood education, and went back to Howard to pursue my Masters in that field.
“After finishing my degree, I got a full-time teaching position at Birney Elementary in Barry Farms and spent eight years as a teacher there. It amazed me to see the conditions that the kids were learning in. We didn’t always have heat or running water. The facilities were not maintained. At the time, I compared this with a friend who was at John Eaton elementary in upper Northwest by the zoo. There, the PTA budget was $250,000 and parents were bringing in all kinds of classes and programs for the kids. At Birney, the PTA budget may have been $3,000. So even if parents were coming together to unite and make change, they didn’t have the resources or were not always positioned to advocate it in a way that brought about change for the kids.
“At Birney, I thought about becoming an administrator, but the more I saw, the more I knew that it wasn’t for me. I transitioned from the schools system to William C. Smith and Company where I oversaw a portfolio that they managed for the Bank of America Community Development Corporation. We had after-school programs at six different properties where we helped with homework, ran camps in the summer, and acted as that gap between when school got out and parents got home. Through those programs, I got to connect with the children and families on a more personal level than I did at the school.
“I did that for five years until the bank made a decision to sell those properties. We outsourced those services to non-profits, and I was not sure if I would be outsourced, too. Chris Smith, the CEO of William C. Smith, told me that he had another project for me and he needed me to be patient. Then, along came THEARC where I started as the Assistant Executive Director before taking over six months later. Never in my wildest imaginations could I have imagined being in this position and being connected to something that reaches so many families and children.
“Originally, back in the early 90’s, William C. Smith purchased the land across the street from THEARC to develop 1,200 multi-family housing units. At the time, there was no outlet for kids, so the original idea was to build a small community center of 10,00 sq. feet. When they did a needs assessment, they saw there was an even greater need. William C. Smith started a non-profit that I lead called Building Bridges Across the River to fundraise and build THEARC and bring partner organizations on board. That small 10,000 sq. foot project morphed into 110,000 square feet at a cost of $27 million. We host ten organizations here that include groups like the Washington Ballet, Levine School of Music, Corcoran, Parklands Community Center, Trinity University, Covenant House, Children’s medical Center, Washington Middle School for Girls, and the Boys and Girls Club. In a normal year, we see 80,000 people come through our doors and will continue to expand our services based on what the community needs.
“Do you know how many times I have been told that THEARC is the best kept secret in the city? Despite the progress here, there are still some people who are challenged to come east of the river. This place just dispels so many of the preconceived notions that people have about Ward 8. People should come over and see for themselves, as opposed to reading all of the bad press about crime and violence that the major news outlets portray about our communities.
“I hope that time will get rid of these stereotypes. As we continue to be here and provide services, more people will find out about us and discover the beauty of life east of the river. While we built THEARC for the people who live here, people from every ward are represented here. To me, the best example of that is Senator Dodd from Connecticut has his two daughters in ballet here. He could afford to take them anywhere and he chose to take them here. That means a lot, and we hope more people will follow his lead.”
THEARC is located at 1901 Mississippi Avenue Southeast. Read more about it here.