In Anacostia, childcare a community effort: Volunteers, non-profits focus on whole family
| By Taylor Hartz |
When the school bells ring in Anacostia, hundreds of kids pour out from playgrounds and school yards and onto the cracking sidewalks. A sea of school uniforms creates an echo of giggles and shouts down Martin Luther King Ave., in the heart of one of Washington’s poorest wards.
Instead of heading toward their homes, most of the children file into various buildings along the avenue that offer after school services ranging from playtime to tutoring. With over 80 percent of households being led by single mothers, there is often no one home at the end of the school day, nor any extra funds for private daycare.
Although Wards 7 and 8 contain less than half the number of businesses and non-profits as D.C.’s other wards, there is no shortage of space for kids after school.
Whether they need help with homework, a snack to tide them over until dinner, or simply someone to keep an eye on them, volunteers and non-profit staff spend hours each afternoon making sure no child heads home to an empty house or on an empty stomach.
The majority of services in the area are provided to families at no expense to the parents, either through state funding, or non-profit sponsorship. Some providers started offering child services through government initiatives, but most either opened the doors of their own home to kids who were alone or simply recognized a neighborhood need a decided to fill it.
According to census data, there were over 22,000 children living in Ward 8 in 2010, making up 30 percent of the area’s population. Stephen Manangan,Director of the Southeast Children’s Fund (SCF), described the area as ‘an impoverished ward.’
In a city where the highest average annual family income reaches upwards of $250,000, families in Anacostia earn an average of only $45,000 a year. In the past three decades, the number of children living in poverty has nearly doubled – in 2015, more than 60 percent of children in Anacostia were living below the poverty line.
Manangan said that most parents who bring their children to SCF’s care centers are employed, but still don’t earn enough to provide housing, food and childcare.
Buen Augustus Abo, Director of the SCF’s Sunshine Early Learning Center, said that in most of Southeast, ‘families are under resourced, unemployed or underemployed.’
Unemployment and poverty rates have been steadily increasing across Wards 7 and 8 over the past three decades. In 2010, unemployment effected a quarter of the population, and all but 176 residents in Anacostia – home to more than 4,000 – were eligible to receive food stamps.
Even before the numbers were this high, lifelong Anacostia resident Myrtle Loughry noticed that kids in the neighborhood were struggling.
From opening her home to opening a center
A single mother raising three children of her own in public housing, Loughry saw that the children next door were almost always alone after school, without anyone to help with homework or cook them dinner.
‘Their parents were heavy drug addicts,’ said Loughry of the neighboring family, ‘they were hardly around.’ She began inviting the kids over to do homework with her own children and welcomed them to join their family dinners and weekend trips.
When an office worker at the Housing Department noticed what Loughry was doing for her neighbors, and how well behaved the children were acting under her care, she offered Loughry a larger apartment with space to accommodate the kids she took in over the years.
The gift of a new apartment turned into the leasing of an office, and then another, and then another, until a donor Loughry calls her ‘guardian angel’ purchased the property now known as the Children’s Center.
Nearly thirty years later, Loughry provides a safe space to more than 50 kids every day, and more than 100 daily during the summer.
A crumbling brick building beside a gravel lot, the Children’s Center is filled with children ages four to 14 who have nowhere else to go.
Every afternoon, Loughry drives her large white van around Ward 8, stopping at several schools to pick up kids and bring them back to the Children’s Center. There, they are taken care of at no charge until 7p.m., when Loughry drives them home with all their homework done and their stomachs full.
A private donor pays for the property and staffing at the center, the D.C. Kitchen provides full meals for dinner every day, and parents aren’t expected to pay for anything but a $30 annual fee for bussing to and from the center.
While the Children’s Center provides a safe space for kids to study, socialize and eat a nutritious meal, Loughry and her staff also hold the children accountable for their behavior outside the center.
‘If they misbehave at school, they’re punished here,’ said Laughry.
‘You have to deal with kids like that because these kids have to grow up out here,’ said Loughry, ‘you want good citizens, so you try to teach them right from wrong.’
Helping hungry kids
Just down the road, Amir Muhamad runs the American Museum of Islamic Heritage. Unlike the Children’s Center, the building is not covered with an array of colorful children’s handprints. There are no drawings or alphabet charts on the walls inside.
The museum is made up of five rooms exhibiting artifacts and photos of American Muslims dating back to the 1600s. Charts are on display mapping the lineage of Islam worldwide, and a gallery of photos of historic Anacostia lines the main wall.
But for one hour each week day, the museum is filled with kids.
An African American Muslim from Conn., Muhammad moved to Anacostia in1995 and co-founded the museum seven years ago, across from a soul food restaurant, a barber shop, a hair braiding salon and a funk music hall.
Muhammad hoped to draw in locals and D.C. tourists who were interested in Muslim history – but instead, he had a lot of children knocking on his door.
‘Kids would come in on their way home from school to ask if we had any food,’ said Muhammad, “So we started keeping food around.”
Now, Muhammad said the museum serves more as a social service center than anything else, and he is not alone in this change of business.
Most businesses on the block offer social services, said Muhammad, due to the high need in the area. At the museum, they feed 60 children after school snacks on a daily basis. He said he hopes to expand the program to include tutoring services as well.
The snack program is funded through Islamic Relief USA, and anyone is welcome to receive the help they offer, including weekly educational programs, community events and monthly outreach programs.
With the help of Islamic Relief, Muhammad found a way to ensure that kids get enough to eat at home as well. Each month, Muhammad organizes a produce food pantry, providing 400 families with fresh fruits and vegetables. Muhammad said that in Anacostia there is a shortage of access to healthy foods, because the neighborhood’s poorest residents live in a ‘food dessert.’
‘Stores around here don’t carry fresh food,’ said Muhammad, and many families don’t have access to a vehicle and can’t afford the fare for public transportation.
Building strong families and communities
Just next door, Inner City Family Services serves as a safe space for both kids and their parents.
Serving as a community development center and a behavioral health treatment facility, Inner City focuses on strengthening families, securing housing and safe neighborhoods, and opening lines of communication between kids and their parents.
They offer individual and family counseling, crisis intervention services and community transition for kids and families in the neighborhood. For those struggling with mental or behavioral health issues, staff are trained to provide diagnostic assessments, medication management, and psychological evaluations.
According to their website, the organization works to improve families and communities by providing “support, advocacy, education and community collaboration.”
Extending further into Wards 7 and 8, (SCF) and its childcare center, Sunshine Early Learning, work more extensively with families with children who aren’t yet old enough to attend school.
Located on Sixth Street in Southeast, all of the families eligible for services at SCF – through the Quality Improvement Network (QUIN) – live below the poverty level, and safety is a definite concern in the area.
‘The streets have been bad lately,’ said Shayla Poole-Diarra, one of two Family Engagement Specialists at Sunshine, ‘Lots of crime, lots of violence.’
‘Someone was shot just down the street a few weeks ago,’ added her coworker, Laura Sampson.
Heavy iron bars guard the gates to the care center, where kids go for up to eleven hours each day. Behind those heavy gates, hundreds of little ones file in, wearing khaki shorts and navy blue polos, matching their teachers in uniform.
A cardboard cutout of Barack and Michelle Obama stands in the doorway and posters of Martin Luther King Jr., hang on the walls. Inside the classrooms, finger paintings and paper mache projects cover the bright yellow walls with even more color.
‘Make sure you have your classroom popping’ says Abo, teacher turned center director, as he approves weekly lesson plans and tells one teacher to add in some more time for artwork.
‘We try to give them a lot of time to be creative and be proud of their work,’ said Abo.
A typical day at Sunshine includes breakfast, snacks and lunch, scheduled around circle time, group games, art classes, learning songs, playtime with blocks, cozy time, and library hours.
About 80 teachers, each qualified with at least an associate’s degree in teaching, spend time in the classroom each day making sure kids are on track for development within their age group. ‘Ages to Stages’ assessments every 45 days help Abo make sure their successes, and areas of struggle, are identified.
For Poole-Diarra and Sampson, the most important work is done at home.
Taking care of kids by caring for parents
The two Family Engagement Specialists work in the center four days a week, servicing nearly 100 families.
‘The whole purpose of why we’re here is to get involved earlier to improve the outcomes with development and family resources,’ said Poole-Diarra. Nearly 50 percent of the families they work with are affected by unemployment, and about 10 percent are homeless.
‘There are a lot of larger issues that the parents are dealing with,’ said Poole-Diarra, adding that it is often frustrating for parents to be lectured about healthy eating choices when they can hardly pay their rent.
‘We’re trying to strike a balance between meeting basic needs, taking care of yourself, and improving communication with kids.’
Working under Headstart and QIN guidelines, the specialists serve as a resource for families, meeting with parents bi-monthly and hosting and six parent trainings a year.
While they try to teach parents every day skills like grocery shopping tips and easy ways to practice counting and spelling, they also teach parents about their housing rights, social services, school options, employment opportunities, and how to handle emotional issues.
‘We try to empower them with information and be a bridge for advocacy,’ said Sampson, ‘sometimes parents aren’t ready to advocate for themselves.’
Sampson said a majority of the families she works with live in public housing and deal with temporary offers of rapid rehousing, and that although ‘there is a lot of fatherhood involvement,’ at Sunshine, most of the families are headed by single mothers and teen moms.
To help parents, Sampson and Poole-Diarra work to provide referrals and resources for help with housing, immigration, education, disabilities, and utility assistance.
For social and emotional issues, the specialists provide home visits and are available to parents 24 hours a day. On a Monday morning, a chorus of “thank you” erupts in an age three classroom, after a weekly visit from an emotional development consultant.
The visiting counselor, working with a turtle puppet on her hand, talks to children
About solving steps, using words rather than actions, and identifying emotions.
All of these efforts, said Abo, follow a family curriculum of ‘training families to raise safe children.’
Throughout the school year, parents are invited to contribute to curriculum development and classroom activities- but this is the area where the center struggles most, said Abo.
Parent meetings are mandatory every other month, but if they were optional, Abo said the turnout would be minimal.
‘They are required to come in order for them to bring their child in the next day,’ said Abo, ‘but they will give you so many excuses.’
Though Manangan said he understands the struggles these families face,
‘there is a responsibility of the parents to be actively engaged in their child’s care.’
The family engagement specialists help with this initiative as well, facilitating parent meetings and forming parent committees. They help to bring in extra support for families who need financial assistance or counseling, and even started a family book club a few months back for a more relaxed bonding activity.
‘The parents don’t have to pay a cent, but they have to participate,’ said Abo.
This summer, the fund is launching another service for parents, a new parent café. The monthly coffeehouse style event will provide a free safe space for parents to share their thoughts and concerns, without judgement.
‘It’s basically a place for struggling parents to grieve and share and realize that they are not alone,’ said Abo.
Despite the struggles of they face, including low incomes, high rents, and neighborhoods that aren’t always kid friendly, Poole-Diarra said ‘there is so much resiliencey amongst all the poverty and violence and crime.’
The community as a whole is dedicated to helping their youngest residents, from their homes to their classrooms.
‘It really amazes me the strength that the families here have,’ said Poole-Diarra.