As the seat of the nation's government, Washington, D.C., should serve as a model city in the care of its poorer residents - but in fact its record is bad. In at least one low-income neighborhood, however, an idea of what can happen when a community pulls together has assumed concrete form. The on-site source of this beginning transformation is the new Perry School Community Services Center on M Street NW, located in a historic 19th-century building that was the first high school for African Americans built with public funds.
During a recent visit, the executive director, Paul McElligott, gave me a guided tour. He spoke of the neighborhood as one long afflicted with problems like an infant mortality rate much higher than the national average, high juvenile arrest rates, a chronic shortage of subsidized housing and low educational achievement. But a year ago, 10 non-profit organizations moved into the renovated building to address these and related social problems. Community residents themselves spearheaded the creation of the center, identified the services needed and presently make up a majority of its governing board.
The physical design of the center follows the growth of the individual. Thus, on the ground floor is a health facility provided by Providence Hospital, offering care from birth through old age. Chronic conditions, like asthma, receive special attention from a staff that even includes a pediatrics psychologist. And with or without health insurance, no one is turned away. Over 8,000 people visited it in the center's first year. On the next floor up, Bright Beginnings operates a large developmental day care center. Close to 100 children gather there daily. Most are homeless.
The very idea of homeless children grates against what the nation's capital should signify. One of the center's goals is consequently to obtain a number of the new Section 8 certificates now available through H.U.D. With these, some of the children's families could move into housing in the community and thereby gain access to other services of the center that could help stabilize their lives.
The progression upward to the second floor led us to programs directed toward youth development. They include a computer learning center, an art center and after-school tutoring programs sponsored by Georgetown University and nearby Gonzaga High School. College Bound is on the second floor too, helping secondary school students move toward higher education. Nearby, in recognition of the violence endemic in many inner city neighborhoods, Little Friends for Peace teaches non-violence skills. Continuing to the third floor, we looked into the office of Jubilee Jobs, a non-profit employment agency that assists those in search of employment. In its first year it placed over 150 people in jobs. Farther along is the office of Goodwill Industries, which offers job training, and the center's social services department.
On the same floor is the Center City Community Corporation, among the oldest anti-poverty programs in the city. One of the 4-C's staff members, Alverta Munlyn, is the chair of the center's board of directors and a community leader. She is also a parishioner at St. Aloysius Church, a few blocks away. Paul McElligott himself is active at the city's other Jesuit church, Holy Trinity. The fact that both are people of strong faith helps explain their belief in the center's commitment to assisting people whose lives have been constrained by poverty to realize their potential. In many respects the center thus exemplifies Gospel-related values, as in Jesus' insistence that no one be marginalized from the larger society. For her own part, Ms. Munlyn sees the center as symbolizing the need for the community not only to pull together, but to bring in others too--like the homeless children and eventually their parents--so that all, as Mr. McElligott put it, might have life abundantly (Jn. 10:10) in surroundings that promote the dignity of each resident.