Who Benefits from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation?

We all do.

Students from Eastern High School tutor Payne Elementary students through the Reach, Inc. program.

Twenty years ago I received a letter asking me to consider making a gift to a Foundation that would put my money to work benefiting people on Capitol Hill. I had never heard of the organization, but right away I grasped and liked the concept – instead of giving my charitable dollars to UNICEF or my alma mater, I could support initiatives in my own neighborhood, a place where affluence and need coexist rather dramatically. I didn’t know exactly what the local activities were that needed financial assistance, but the beauty of the idea was that someone else would figure that out for me.

Now that I am that someone else, I am even more convinced of the strength of this plan. It’s the old “community chest” that I remember from long ago days playing Monopoly; it’s the United Way, but centered where I live. It is, as the foundation’s literature suggests, “neighbors helping neighbors.” As a donor, I can have a bigger impact than I would ever have had at a theater or a big university and I can actually see the results of my giving all around me.

I can see them in the grounds around Watkins Elementary School, which the Capitol Hill Community Foundation has funded for years with small grants enabling teachers to buy topsoil and gardening tools, wood to create raised beds and signage explaining the various gardens. I see them in the Yu Me tree mosaic across the street from Watkins on the wall of the CVS which the Foundation helped underwrite.  I can take pride in the beautiful new Hill Center to which the Foundation made a major donation and in the Eastern Market where vendors benefited from many small grants during the difficult period after the fire there.

There are also, though, things that I am privileged to see because of my role as chairman of the grants committee that a regular donor to the Foundation might not even be aware of. Each spring and fall the dozen members of the committee evaluate scores of applications for funding (this fall, for the first time, the number topped one hundred). We make phone calls to people serving our community in a variety of ways. We visit places we would not otherwise see.

This was how I first met Steve Park, who almost twenty years ago founded Little Lights Urban Ministries to serve families in Potomac Gardens. Steve has guided Little Lights as it grew from an after-school “Homework Club” using volunteers from his church to a whole variety of programs that now recruit volunteers at Howard University and other places. Every year or two I meet Steve or another Little Lights staffer and we talk about the latest developments – the new “Green Team” program that trains residents to do landscaping work and has gotten them a contract to do the maintenance at Potomac Gardens; the internship that gives stipends to resident teens who help with the children at summer camp; the community resource center in a freshly painted apartment where people can learn to use a computer, check a job data bank or just visit. We can’t fund all of the programs Little Lights sponsors – we have way too many other requests to do that and fortunately Little Lights has many donors. But I always come away from a visit there feeling hopeful and inspired.

The Atlas Performing Arts Center has been a wonderful addition to our neighborhood, one I’ve enjoyed often as a patron attending plays there. But if it weren’t for my work evaluating grant requests, I never would have been to a performance of their Theatre for the Very Young series. One Saturday last spring, though, I joined several dozen toddlers and their parents, baby sitters, big sisters and brothers in a circle on the floor. Together, we took a trip to an imaginary island where we found music and bubbles, colored lights, sonorous seashells and flying fish. I can’t wait to take my grandson to a show like that. It’s nice to know there will very likely be one at the Atlas next time he’s here.

Rosetta Brooks has been a friend for years. She grew up on Capitol Hill, attended Howard University, and for over twenty years has been the Artistic Director of the dance studio at St. Mark’s Episcopal church where I worship and have participated in the liturgical dance program. Each year Rosie applies for a small grant to cover expenses of dance classes she offers at an after-school program run by her friend, Joanne Buford. It’s for children in local schools whose families might not have the means to offer them lessons in music, karate or dance. The space is donated by Capitol Hill Methodist Church and Rosie teaches the kids ballet and jazz dance. She pays herself a small stipend per class and at the end of the year, she uses the rest of the grant money to buy costumes for a short recital. “The program gives these kids a shot at something cultural, something that enhances their lives,” Rosie says. “If it enhances their lives then it is going to enhance the community. I grew up here and it’s my way of giving back.”

One Thursday afternoon this fall I went to Payne Elementary school at 14th and C Streets, SE where students from Eastern High School were tutoring second and third graders in phonics and reading, supervised by a graduate student in special education from the University of Maryland; a young man who works at Eastern as an educational aide; and one of the Payne teachers. The tutors, tenth graders, many of whom struggle with academics themselves, earn $40 a week for the two sessions they spend preparing lesson plans with their supervisors and the two sessions a week with their tutees. Their pride in what they do is evident. Mark Hecker, who created the Reach, Inc. program two years ago, reports that all the tutors he started with last year are back for a second year; they find satisfaction in helping the younger children and being respected for it. And, of course, their own skills improve too. I listened while lead tutor Rashaan explained the phonics worksheet and watched the children scramble excitedly to follow his directions. When I left, they were working one-on-one with tutors, reading a poem by A.A. Milne. “Halfway up the stairs isn’t up, and isn’t down. It isn’t in the nursery, it isn’t in the town.” I was so sorry I had to go. I couldn’t stay to hear them answer the question about the line “all sorts of funny thoughts, run around my head.” I would have loved to hear them talk about the funny thoughts in their heads.

The Capitol Hill Community Foundation can encourage programs like these because of generous support from individual donors. The term “foundation” is perhaps misleading, implying a large endowment, an unlimited source of funds. But in fact, each year we must raise the money we give away to the community. All the foundation’s work is done by volunteers so every dollar given goes out to the community as a grant.  It was one of those fundraising letters, quite a few years ago, that got me into this and if you get one, perhaps it will pique your interest. And, of course, even if you don’t get a letter, you can still donate to support these and other worthwhile programs. Find out how at www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.org!

Stephanie Deutsch is a long-time Hill resident and Chairman of the grants committee of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation.