Imagine trying to daily make ends meet on less than what most people spend at the movies. Imagine living in a place where people are doing or selling drugs in the hallway as you try to get your kids out the door to school. Imagine trying to get a job when you can’t read the application.
In 2013, the average household income for families living in Washington, DC’s housing project Potomac Gardens was about $9,200 a year. It was significantly less for those living in the Hopkins community.1
For many families living in the shadow of the nation’s capital, this is reality.
Ironic, given that Washington, DC, is one of the wealthiest areas in the country. The Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey reveals that four of the nation’s five wealthiest counties are located in the region.
But inside the city, there are families living on less than $10,000 a year. They reside in two of the city’s remaining housing projects in DC’s Ward 6: Potomac Gardens and Hopkins. They live next to families who make more than 14 times what they do yearly.
Steve Park remembers Darrell, one of the first people he met when Little Lights began. What stood out about this young middle schooler was that he couldn’t read a Dr. Seuss book. It broke Park’s heart, but also planted the seed of a mission that would become Little Lights Urban Ministries.
It began as a tutoring program that he ran out of his parent’s business and blossomed over the past two decades into an organization that many see as the backbone of these communities.
Not that much has changed since the organization formed in 1995, Park says. "The spirit in many ways is the same – just having that personal connection with kids and families. It's the core of who we are."
The organization has grown steadily over the years, and in 2014, there were 120 students in Little Lights programs. There have been a lot of firsts in that time. Park talks about the elation of kids discovering they can read for the first time, making the honor role and becoming the first person in their family to go to college.
Yet for all the success stories, there are hardships and emotional challenges in working with high poverty communities like these. "Even as you see the potential, you see people die,” he said. “You attend funerals. It's really hard to see the suffering. It seems so unfair."
And – as Park explains – the difference between living in these communities and growing up in a typical middle class household extend far beyond income. It isn’t as easy as just going out and getting a job, Park says.
One statistic I read said that one out of 20 black males can expect to be murdered in their lifetime. That's twice the death rate of World War II soldiers. These kids are living in war zones right in our own country.Steve ParkExecutive DirectorLittle Lights
Many of those living in Potomac Gardens and Hopkins are ill-prepared for the workforce, Park said. The manufacturing jobs that once sustained those without college degrees are gone. And even if jobs were available, he says the average cost of daycare for an infant in DC is $18,000 a year. That’s more than what you’d earn full time in a minimum wage job.
"The math doesn't work," Park says. “A lot of the time people just want to blame a person for being in poverty. It's not fair to simplify it in that way without understanding the dynamic.”
So let’s take a minute and understand the dynamic. Let’s get to know these communities and the people living in them. We’ll find out what Little Lights is doing – and how we as individuals can help.
1 D.C. Housing Authority
2 United States Census Bureau, D.C. Housing Authority, Neighborhood Info DC and Little Lights Urban Ministries
Welcome to My Neighborhood
What if the sound of gunshots became normal? They wouldn’t scare you anymore because you’d heard these sounds from the time you were a small child. In fact, when you hear them now, you run to the sound instead of away…more curious than afraid.
The average family of four residing in Potomac Gardens and Hopkins subsists on an annual income that is less than half of the federal poverty level. Despite their close proximity to nearby luxury homes, residents in these neighborhoods grapple with an ever-present reality of poverty and violence.
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, American Psychological Association
The highway creates a bleak backdrop for Hopkins Housing Community. Trucks rumble by as broken black rubber swings sway in the wind, blowing across a humble playground.
Inside, the linoleum-lined hallways have an almost institutional feel, and the elevator smells of urine.
But it’s bright and cheery in Crystal’s apartment. The house is warm, with calming latte-colored walls in the living room and a happy magenta hue in her daughter Darriyah’s room. A huge pink and purple flower drawn by Crystal’s brother decorates the chalkboard wall in the kitchen.
“I used to have to hide food,” she says, remembering the last three years when she and Darriyah shared a room in her mother’s three-bedroom Potomac Gardens apartment.
“Now I have a pantry,” she says, beaming with pride. Crystal loves to cook and says lasagna is her specialty.
She says showing her daughter that room was life-changing. Having that tiny face look up in disbelief and ask her mommy, “This is MINE?”
Back to the Start
Crystal’s family moved to Potomac Gardens when she was a toddler. There were seven people living in that three-bedroom apartment: Crystal, her mom and dad, three brothers and her little sister.
“My mother was on drugs basically my whole life,” says Crystal. Her father worked to support the kids living under his roof, and three others outside it.
“Then he had to take care of my mother and her habit,” she says, remembering how he had to give her mom money for the family’s food stamps or she would sell them to support her habit.
“For the most part, it was basically struggling my whole childhood,” Crystal said. “Some days we would have, some days we won’t.”
During the times when they didn’t have, things got rough. Crystal says her mom would get so angry when she couldn’t feed her addiction that she’d throw canned goods at her children.
When she was in a good mood, her mom cooked. “They used to have this pork in a can,” she says, which her mother would cut up and mix with rice. Otherwise, the kids had to fend for themselves when it came to meals, surviving on ramen noodles and hot dogs. She spent a lot of time at her cousin’s house – a place where she knew she’d get fed. They often bought her clothes when she’d show up in rags.
And living in public housing came with its own challenges. Adults would instigate kids getting into fights, she says, describing a time when she accidentally stepped on a friend’s glasses while they were playing. The friend’s mother made her fight Crystal.
“I was never one of those kids who wanted to fight, but me and my sister had to defend ourselves,” she says, adding that their mother had more pressing concerns than protecting them. “She was always worried about the next time she’d get a fix.”
Violence was a part of life for Crystal. She was seven the first time she saw someone get shot. And then there were the drugs.
“I remember playing outside with my friends and we came across a brown paper bag of needles.” She recalls the kids playing with them, explaining that there was no real supervision – no one to tell you how dangerous that was.
The sad part, Crystal says, is that she was never really scared by what was happening around her.
I’ve seen people get killed. I’ve seen drug addicts do drugs and not care that there are kids present. When you’ve grown up in that environment your whole life, it seems normal.
When they were on public assistance, Darriyah would get about $370 a month in food stamps and a $340 per month cash stipend.
She explains that you can’t use food stamps to pay for things like toothpaste, sanitary items, diapers or wipes. “Some people are forced to sell food stamps to do all the other things they have to do.”
Then there’s the stipend. On that kind of income, she says, most people would pay $89 to $100 in rent. You can’t have a car, because even if you could afford it – and the insurance – you couldn’t pay for gas, she says. But in order to keep getting checks, you have to go to Ready To Work.
So what do you do with your kids? Many living in these communities are single parents like her. You can’t get a daycare voucher unless you are in school or attending a Ready To Work program, and you can’t get to either without daycare, she says.
Now that she’s had a job – and a modest income – she isn’t sure how she ever survived on public assistance. And she doesn’t ever want to have to do it again. But that doesn’t mean life got easier.
At 22, Crystal was the primary bread-winner living in that three-bedroom apartment with eight of her family members. But she wasn’t the head of the household, which meant dealing with tremendous anxiety when her mother failed to pay the rent. She worried constantly that she and her daughter would end up on the street.
There were times she’d go into work without lunch, not sure what she’d eat that day. That’s because anything she would buy for her or Darriyah would disappear. “I had to take everything with me,” Crystal says – even her toothbrush.
She couldn’t afford to get her own place, and couldn’t get another apartment in the community without getting her mother removed from the lease. That would require getting her deemed unfit. “Everything was building on me, and I was kind of like crashing,” Crystal says. ”I don’t want to be a statistic like every other female that comes out of here.”
Seeking a Different Path
Crystal wants a different life for her daughter.
That new beginning became possible with the support of Little Lights – an organization that became part of Crystal’s life when she was eight. She now works full time as the organization's project coordinator. She calls the people there “the family she never had.”
They helped make this transition possible, says Crystal, assisting her with the necessary paperwork to make her the head of household and teaching her how to set a budget.
“There’s no telling where I would have been if they had not stepped up,” she says. “They wanted this for me so bad. I don’t think I would ever repay them – as much as they’ve done for me.”
Crystal says she was humbled by the Little Lights volunteers who got involved to get the apartment ready for her and Darriyah. People she didn’t know who donated their time and money.
Little Lights founder Steve Park says that’s what the organization is about: "At the heart of it is friendship to people in the community," he says. And Crystal is a big part of the Little Lights community.
This fresh start has given Crystal the opportunity to start Darriyah on a different trajectory for the future.
“I want her to go to school and finish school,” Crystal says, explaining that most people would be referring to college. That is the end goal, she says, but high school – which she almost didn’t finish – would be a great start. I want her to know what it is she wants to do so nothing will get in her way and distract her,” she says, adding that Darriyah is now part of the Little Lights program.
For two decades, Little Lights Urban Ministries has sought to provide sanctuaries of encouragement, hope, and practical assistance to the kids, teens, adults, and families of southeast Washington, DC.
They primarily serve the Potomac Gardens and Hopkins communities, two of the capital’s last remaining public housing complexes. Residents of these communities face overwhelming obstacles, making hope a valuable commodity. Providing that hope is where Little Lights truly shines.
“I truly believe in the power of compassion to change lives, bring hope to places deemed hopeless, and to transform communities,” says Steve Park, the organization’s founder and executive director. He describes their mission as creating compassionate, caring relationships – being a friend to those who need one most.
Little Lights provides a number of programs and services that embody this mission and empower the underserved in these communities.
Reading & Math Heroes
The Reading and Math Heroes programs provide students with a specific tutor for one-on-one tutoring throughout the semester. Tutors and students often build deep friendships with each other, giving tutors the ability to help instill confidence and growth in students.
Reading Heroes is aimed at developing grade-level literacy skills. Students focus on reading comprehension, writing, phonics and grammar. According to the John Corcoran Foundation, one child in four grows up not knowing how to read. This can have lasting implications, as two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare.
Math Heroes is meant to help students to develop grade-level mathematical skills. A program is personalized for each student based on what they are studying in school and their specific learning needs. In 2014, Little Lights students solved 52,470 math problems.
Helping students understand and complete daily homework is an ongoing need that Homework Club seeks to answer. Four nights a week, students work with tutors to finish their homework, then cycle through a “chill” station, where they get to play games and receive a full, balanced meal provided by the Capital Area Food Bank. For many students, the dinner they receive at Homework Club might be the only full, healthy meal they get all day.
In 2013, according to report cards, 82% of the students who participated in Homework Club met school requirements to turn in daily homework assignments. These students logged 589 hours of learning in 2014.
Little Lights Choir
The Little Lights Choir, led by Linda Rice and Crystal Jenkins, meets every Friday afternoon to practice and prepare for the multiple performances they do across the city. Being part of the Little Lights Choir gives students the chance to travel around the city and meet all types of people, plus they also learn teamwork, coordination, and how to express themselves creatively.
For kids living in these communities, summer often doesn’t mean vacation. Summer break can mean boredom and little to no supervision for many of these students. Summer Lights seeks to provide kids with an avenue to explore their interests, review their math and English, and play in a safe environment.
Workforce Development Program
Little Lights helps people in the community become workforce ready by both assisting individuals as they search for jobs, and hiring people from the community to work at Little Lights.
At the Potomac Gardens Little Lights Family Center, individuals can use the computer lab to search for jobs and work with staff members to create resumes, draft cover letters and prepare for interviews.
The Clean Green Team
The Clean Green Team is a social enterprise of Little Lights Urban Ministries. It provides much needed employment opportunities to public housing residents, allowing team members to gain critical job experience, build their resumes, and responsibly provide for their families. Workers are provided expert training by D&A Dunlevy Landscapers Inc., a full-service landscape company with a 30-year track record of excellence.
The team offer services including mowing and edging, tree and shrub trimming, leaf removal, snow removal, weeding, watering and mulching. In addition to their ongoing maintenance contracts with the DC Housing Authority, in 2014, The Clean Green Team worked 25 different jobs in the Washington, DC area.
Diaper Distribution, Thanksgiving Baskets & Christmas Store
Little Lights steps in and assists with so many needs in its community – both big and small. It serves as a diaper distribution site for low-income Washington, DC families. In 2014, 139 parents received 41,400 diapers through this program.
It partners with local churches and other groups to provide Thanksgiving baskets for public housing families. In 2014, they distributed 110 of these baskets. And its ‘Christmas Store’ program provides gifts for low-income parents to give to their children on Christmas morning. In 2014, 200 children received gifts from the Christmas Store, and 100 students from both Potomac and Hopkins were able to choose gifts for their parents or guardians.
Kids and communities are transformed by personal relationships. In Potomac Gardens and Hopkins public housing communities, 90% of youth live in single-parent, female-headed households that exist on less than $10,000 a year. Without intervention, only 2% of these kids will go on to attend college.
According to a study of Big Brothers Big Sisters conducted by Public/Private Ventures, an independent Philadelphia-based national research organization, students who meet regularly with their mentors are 52% less likely than their peers to skip a day of school and 37% less likely to skip a class. Youth who meet regularly with their mentors are 46% less likely than their peers to start using illegal drugs and 27% less likely to start drinking.
When adults commit to mentoring students, Little Lights says they see students – and their families – thrive. “I still believe this simple truth: the biggest need a child has is to feel loved and valuable. My prayer is that more Christians will reach out to these children and their families to show them that somebody – especially God – cares for them,” says Little Lights’ Steve Park.
Each Friday night, adults and teens from the community come together at the Hopkins Center for The Gathering, an evening of dinner, fellowship, worship and teaching. The Gathering offers a safe place for adults and teens to find community, explore their faith, and experience loving, supportive relationships.
“Every single thing I know about God – every single thing that I know about God – I learned here at little lights,” Jenkins says.
Sources: John Corcoran Foundation, D.C. Housing Authority, Little Lights
Aside from his time away at college, Dwaine Brown has lived in Potomac Gardens his entire life.
With both parents suffering from drug addiction, he was raised by his grandmother. He says Little Lights gave him a sense of stability. “I got that from my grandmother,” he says, “but there was only so much she could do.”
“I got into a lot of fights. My grandmother always taught me to turn the other cheek,” he says. “I felt scared a lot as a kid.”
His experience in this community is similar to Crystal Jenkins’: There were stabbings, gunshots, multiple fires that trapped him and his grandmother in their apartment. He and his friends would see needles while playing football or basketball. “Or we’d just see people strung out,” Brown says.
He says his grandmother kept him on a straight-and-narrow path.
“She always told me, ‘You’re different – but don’t let that stop you from being who you are’.” That planted a seed in Brown that Little Lights helped to nurture.
Dwaine started attending their programs when he was 9-years-old. He remembers one of his first camp counselors by name and the impact that she had. He loved the camp songs, the super soakers on hot summer days and seeing the city while riding in the organization’s van. He was involved with every part of the organization, which he calls “life changing.”
“It gave me a sense of stability,” Brown said. “Being a part of Little Lights – it made me really understand, one, what it meant to be loved by someone outside of your family. And two, that people – complete strangers – could pour into you and not want nothing in return but to see you be successful and do well.”
Steve Park, Little Lights’ executive director and founder was Brown’s mentor and has been there for many of the ups and downs in this young man’s life. He was there when Brown graduated from high school … and later when he became the first in his immediate family to graduate from college. Park was there when he lost his grandmother … and recently, his father. Brown remembers Park being at the hospital to support him at 11 o’clock at night.
Brown says that’s something he really appreciated...and it held an important lesson for him about being present.
“It’s easy for a father to be physically there, but are you present with your child? It’s easy to tell your child what to do, but are you listening to them? Are you sharing in the special moments with them – them learning how to ride a bike, learning how to swim, playing their first sports...or their first instruments? Are you there for them? Are you there for the hard conversations?”
Both Park and Brown agree on the tough conversations. For them, being a good friend sometimes means challenging someone – not always telling them what they want to hear. And that’s been part of their relationship, too, Park says.
Now, at 27, Brown’s life and prospects for the future are filled with promise. He currently works with a non-profit that provides counseling to underserved high school juniors and seniors aimed at helping them get into college. He recently met Erica – the literal girl of his dreams.
“She’s amazing,” Brown says. “She definitely was made for me – her heart for people.” They plan to marry in June.
Steve Park will be there for that milestone, too.
"He was there when I got married,” Park says, remembering Brown singing at their service. “Now to see him get married – to be there and support him through it. To me, I think of it as a long term friendship, and hopefully one that will go on and keep growing."
In the future, Brown and his soon-to-be wife hope to have children. Two of their own, he says, and two adopted “from the kind of environment I grew up in.” He’s looking forward to how God will be able to use him and his wife to impact others.
“The Bible says before he formed us in our mother’s womb, he knew us,” Brown says. And, he adds, he is right where he needs to be … and a big part of that he owes to this organization.
“Even to this day, I still feel myself being affected by my time at Little Lights,” he says, with a look that demonstrates how much he believes this to be true.
"If I could do it all again, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Brown says. “I wouldn’t change a thing."
When you visit Potomac Gardens and Hopkins communities armed with a video or still camera – or even a notepad – people start asking questions. Each time I met with our team onsite for this project, residents asked us what we were doing. They’re trying to protect themselves and their neighbors from what has traditionally been negative media coverage about these housing projects, and the people who call them home.
I discovered that there were two magic words that brought a smile of relief to their faces: Little Lights. It amazed me to watch how people softened, often encouraging us in our mission to tell others about this amazing organization and their powerful, important work.
But Little Lights can’t do that work without our help.
There are so many ways to make a real difference in these underserved communities.
Maybe it is donating money. Your gift of $50 would purchase a year’s curriculum for the Reading and Math Heroes program for one child. For $250, Little Lights can provide a year of staff support for one child enrolled in these programs. Donate now.
Maybe it is donating time. Commit to becoming a tutor for one academic semester, and help a child stay on track – even excel – in their academic pursuits. Or join the faith-based mentoring program. Become a volunteer.
Maybe it’s simply spreading the word. Become a vocal champion for Little Lights Urban Ministries by spreading the word about what they do. Share their story.
Or maybe your gift lies in prayer. Help Little Lights by praying that God would bless this ministry. Sign up for their prayer requests and praise reports newsletter.
I was so moved by the people I had the privilege to meet through working on this story. From the wonderful staff at Little Lights, to the people of this community who are just like you and I – but facing challenges that we can never fully understand. Get involved. You won’t regret it.