Get Out and Give Back: Beacon House’s Great Leap

by WL Author

This nonprofit’s summer camp is a tornado of activity for kids ages 5 – 13
By Jane Hess Collins

Reverend Donald Robinson (second from left), Beacon House founder, will have the nearby football field named in his honor this Friday. He is pictured with Karen Schneebaum (far left), board member Steven Schneebaum and Dawn Wolf.

The email from Stacey Erd, Beacon House’s executive director, read like an order of battle. With precise start and end times, I was to read to kindergarteners, discuss self-esteem, careers and confidence with preteen girls, serve lunch, then help 7- and 8-year-olds with an arts and crafts project.

Be careful what you ask for. In my zeal to encourage people to give back and promote all of metropolitan DC’s hardworking nonprofits, I offered to volunteer anytime, anywhere. Now Beacon House put me to work at their Camp Leap summer program.

What, no Starbucks breaks? No time to text?

It was nearly ten o’clock. Time to get busy.

I was led to the kindergarten room and asked to select a book to read.

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Rather than sit in the chair that the staff offered to me, I sat on the floor with the kids. Really, there is nothing more adorable than 6-year-old kids snuggling against you as you read Peter Rabbit and Walt Disney stories to them. It was not a time to be shy, and I conjured up my best Donald Duck voice and antique car aaahh-ooo-gaaahs.

The half hour flew by way too fast. I could have stayed there all day. Three storybooks later it was time to visit the preteen girls of STRIDE, a brilliant acronym for Self–awareness, Teamwork, Responsibility, Independence, Diligence, and Excellence. About 12 girls politely tried not to show their boredom as I droned on about believing in yourself and choosing supportive friends. In a last-ditch attempt to connect with them I asked, “How many of you have boyfriends?”

Immediately the girls broke into giggles and pointed at each other. I was on to something. They spent the next 15 minutes discussing why a boyfriend must treat you well or be shown the door.

As our session drew to a close I remembered something I learned decades ago when my Grandma sent me to charm school before I started college. Lining the girls up in a row, I showed them the “pageant pose.” Within seconds all of them perfected that graceful knee-forward, lift-from-the-waist posture of every Miss America hopeful. Then, because dance is part of the STRIDE program, they busted out their dance moves. And they were awesome.

Lunch was next, and it was my privilege to serve a healthy lunch to the kids alongside Miss Porter, a thin, elderly grandmother wearing a church dress and huge rhinestone earrings. Miss Porter had survived a stroke and a heart attack, and she ruled the cafeteria. Watching a group of high school boys morph from too-cool-for-school to “yes ma’am” when she spoke to them was the most entertaining part of the morning.

In fact, I heard a lot of “yes, ma’ams” at Beacon House. Teaching manners and respect was a huge part of the Camp Leap agenda.

Founded in 1991 by Reverend Donald E. Robinson, Beacon House serves at-risk children in the Edgewood Terrace community of Washington, DC. As he and I sat in the cafeteria kitchen during a lunch break, I asked him where he thought some of these kids would be had he not started the program 20 years ago.

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He shook his head. “Dead,” he whispered. “Drugs. Pregnant as teenagers. You name it.”

Today, his Beacon House kids routinely graduate from high school then attend college or a trade school. Not surprisingly, lots of those kids return to thank Reverend Robinson for caring. (The nearby football field will be renamed “The Reverend Donald Robinson Field” this Friday, July 22, at noon. All readers are invited).

Peniel, Moselle and Tonjah strike a pose during arts and crafts class.

It was time for the last project. Sixteen 7-and 8-year-olds painted portraits of themselves on three-foot paper cutouts. Some of them painted their moms or their brothers. Most of the girls took extra care to paint nail polish on the paper fingers. Fashion rules at Beacon House.

Beacon House has enough volunteers to make it through Camp Leap, but needs one-on-one mentors throughout the school year. Mentoring time is just a two-hour commitment on Monday or Tuesday evening or Saturday morning, beginning in mid-September. Contact Beacon House if you’re interested.

Stacey will put you to work.

Jane Hess Collins helps and encourages people to give back through her volunteering, writing, speaking, coaching and workshops.

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You can follow Get Out and Give Back on Facebook, Twitter and her website.

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