Making Change in DC

Annie E. Casey Foundation
December 1, 2001

It began with a flier, recounts Rita Atkinson, a soft-spoken but determined 35-year-old, who lives with her mother in East Capitol Dwellings, a public housing complex in Northeast DC. The flyer promised a free computer to those completing a basic computer class.

"It didn't say it was in exchange for 200 hours of community service," she laughed. But by the time she found out about that catch, she was immersed in the instruction, and enjoying the idea of owning a computer and knowing how to use it. So she decided to stick with the program, run by the East Capitol Center for Change, a community development organization recognized by the Annie E. Casey Foundation for its dedication to the principles of family strengthening and community connections.

"Computers are so much faster than writing something out by hand, and the Web can be so useful for job searching and other types of research," Rita said, explaining why she wants to be part of the technology revolution.

In just the few short months from May 1999 to early February 2000, Rita had already amassed 141 of the required 200 volunteer hours. Not only that, the voracious student had become the teacher. In addition to her full-time job, Rita now teaches the Center's computer class two evenings a week from 6-7:30 pm—more volunteer hours that put her dream of computer ownership within reach.

A native of the District of Columbia, and one of eight siblings, Rita confesses that her school performance ranged from excellent to not so good. She was held back several times at Fletcher Johnson Middle School, where she initially went along with the crowd, showing up "everywhere but in class." At the same time she was on the honor roll and knew that "hanging out" wasn't really what she wanted to do with her time. With the help of two mentoring teachers, she turned things around. By inviting Rita to spend time at their own homes and providing other assistance, Viola Wiggs and Evelyn Manson helped her escape the distractions and concentrate on her studies.

When she reached Eastern High School, Rita generally maintained good grades, but she was threatened with being held back one spring when she quit going to classes before school was actually over. Transferring to an alternative program at Spingarn High, she graduated with honors.

Acting on Her Beliefs
Since 1985, Rita's love and affinity for children have found expression in her job caring for toddlers at the National Child Day Care Association, a center that serves Northwest DC's Shaw neighborhood. Rita—who has vowed to delay having her own children until she is married— recently completed a 120-hour certification program to become a Child Development Associate. She also has taken college courses in early childhood development at both Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia.

Rita credits her own involvement with the East Capitol Center for Change for prompting her mother, Hattie Atkinson, to enroll in the Center-run GED program that is funded by the DC Housing Authority. By example, the pair are instilling in Rita's young nieces and nephews a sense of the importance of community involvement and support.

Mrs. Atkinson's participation at the Center has grown to the extent that "She's comes even when I'm not there!" Rita exclaimed, noting that her mother initially required gentle nudging to participate. Rita's nieces—Raven, 3, Jenina, 8 and Shalaan, 10—and nephews—Maricco, 6, and Antwone, 15—take part in many of the Center's kid-oriented outings and activities, which include trips to DC's Capital Children's Museum and the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History. They gravitate to the Center's Friday evening Family Nights, when family-oriented movies are shown, and even pitch in with the Center-sponsored Saturday neighborhood cleanups.

Rita has also donated her time an as after-school homework helper and to "Rights of Passage," a program aimed at giving young women "respect for their womanhood, their bodies."

Strengthening Communities—and People
Originally known as "Time/Dollar," what is now called the East Capitol Volunteer Program is supported by the Center's own budget and donations from the New Life Assembly Church in Capitol Heights, MD, the East Capitol Residents Council, the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and the DC Housing Authority. In addition, Freddie Mac, the Federal National Mortgage Corporation, has contributed computers, and the church has donated clothing.

The Center's philosophy is that the rewards reinforce the mutual commitment between resident and community, and that volunteering builds a positive self-image and a sense of personal responsibility. "Without the support of the residents, the volunteer program wouldn't work," Center President and Director Curtis Watkins emphasizes. "Their commitment to volunteering is what really keeps the program up and running."

Speaking of positive images, Rita points to Watkins, himself a product of East Capitol Dwellings, as an inspirational role model. He has devoted himself to community development and helping young men stay on a constructive path. The organization's success in that area was recently publicized in a Washington Post column highlighting the Center's participation in the Achievement Against the Odds program, which works to prevent violence and gang involvement among young men.

Rita gives Watkins credit for starting the Center, noting, "He didn't just talk about it. He acted on his beliefs."

She adds that the East Capitol Center "is really vital to the community. Often, those who live in low-income housing projects, if they don't see anything positive, they do what everyone else is doing"—a path she, a self-described loner, long ago rejected for herself.

"It's important for kids in single-parent families, who often are left unsupervised, to be able to come to the Center, where there are lots of rules—no profanity, no hitting—and many positive things going on," she added.

Of Rita, Watkins said, "We feel very fortunate to have her here. She really exemplifies volunteering and commitment." And he expressed his "vision" that one day Rita will be the manager of a day care center, or even the owner of her own child care business.