An after-school club is a gesture of friendship for homeless families
Perspective by John Kelly
November 15, 2023 at 12:27 p.m. EST
Jean Johnson, left, a volunteer at the weekly kids activity club at the Brooks, and Lakeda Martin, program director at the Brooks. District families experiencing homelessness find temporary respite at the apartment building in Northwest. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
“This is what happens when you leave The Washington Post in charge,” Abby Porter joked as she surveyed the craft table I was nominally monitoring in the ground-floor dining room of the Brooks, an apartment building in Ward 3 in D.C.
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Funded by the District government and operated by Friendship Place, the Brooks opened in 2020 as a short-term refuge for families experiencing homelessness.
Each Tuesday evening, parents are invited to bring their kids to an activity club led by volunteers from the neighborhood. Porter had brought rice paper disks kids could dip in food coloring to make interesting patterns.
Porter had handed the table over to me when she went to read with an older child. When she returned 20 minutes later, the table was awash in squirts of food coloring, three children speckled like Jackson Pollock paintings. Hey, it’ll wash out, right?
“We noticed that the children loved art projects,” Jean Johnson, the lead volunteer for the activity club, told me. “They could easily create very expressive artwork and so that became very important. So this year when we were planning, we said let’s call it the Kids Learning Project. You can still come if you don’t have homework.”
On the evening I visited, one table was devoted to clay, one to the aforementioned food coloring, another to books, and one to Luke Sikich, a volunteer who played a game of his own invention with a couple of young Brooks residents.
Luke is a 14-year-old freshman at School Without Walls who visits each week with his mother, Keri Sikich. He brings dice that have letters on each face. He takes turns with the kids building little forts out of dominoes, then knocking them down with the dice. But first, you have to spell a word with the dice.
“We try to sneak in some learning,” said Keri.
“We’re creating this as we go along,” said Terry McGowan, another volunteer. She loves to read with the kids.
The Brooks has room for 50 families. Each has its own dorm-style room with beds, dressers, nightstands and a minifridge. There’s a community room on each floor and a laundry room. The families come to the Brooks in many ways. Some have been living in their cars. The idea is they will stay for 90 days, then find more stable housing.
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While living at the Brooks, families get help from Friendship Place, with financial management classes, wellness classes and other services.
“We’re trying to stop the cycle,” said Lakeda Martin, program director at the Brooks.
Jean Johnson was excited when she learned that housing for families experiencing homelessness was coming to the neighborhood where she has lived for more than 50 years.
“On the first day, I made a very colorful banner in bold letters that said, ‘You are my neighbor,’” Johnson said. “I walked it over to the Brooks and gave it to the director.”
And as she walked home that day, Johnson picked up litter, “so that whatever the bus route was, the people wouldn’t see any cups or any trash around. I wanted them to feel like this is a really nice place to be.”
Johnson grew up on the South Side of Chicago, one of 10 children. She lived in a very segregated neighborhood, where all the families were White, like hers. When an older sister came back home from DePaul University for the first time — brimming with progressive views on equality, integration and fair housing — a 10-year-old Johnson found her own eyes opening.
“And so over the 70 years since then, I’ve raised my consciousness slowly,” Johnson said. “To me, it’s sort of a lifelong issue.”
Johnson represents Friendship Place at her church, Holy Trinity in Georgetown, one of about 20 houses of worship that support the charity’s work.
“This is a group that has very good case managers and really works with people, providing wraparound services,” she said. “So it’s not a dumping-and-abandonment kind of treatment.”
The weekly activity club — the homework help, the books, the messy arts and crafts — is a gesture of friendship to the Brooks families.
“They see that neighbors care about their children,” Johnson said. “This is a friendly gesture, but the most friendly gesture is finding them a home.”
You can make a gesture of your own by donating to Friendship Place through The Washington Post’s annual Helping Hand campaign. To give online, go to posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, send a check to Friendship Place, 4713 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 20016.