- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

CITIZEN JOURNALISM:

She never wanted to be called “Mom” or “Mother” and certainly not “Mother Jones” - just simply “call me Ms. Jones.” But Brenda H. Jones, founder and executive director of the Parklands Community Center (PCC) for nearly 30 years, has nurtured, directed, taught and provided a safe haven for enough struggling Southeast Washington residents to earn an honor higher than “mentor.”

“I wake up to serve people,” Ms. Jones said last week as she prepared to host her self-help organization’s first sit-down appreciation dinner, which celebrated 50 mothers Saturday night at the Town Hall Education, Arts and Recreation Campus (THEARC) on Mississippi Avenue Southeast.

And serve she does. The Mother’s Day Gala Awards Dinner, where Parklands-area mothers enjoy a meal with their families, is the latest of many treats Ms. Jones tries to provide for parents, many of whom are trying to get their lives back on track.

What concerns her most these days, after three decades of social service work in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the nation’s capital? After several emergency distractions, Ms. Jones eventually handed her interviewer a note she’d secretly scribbled on a scrap of used, torn printer paper: “You have the power to shape your child’s future or not.”

Ms. Jones’ eyes widen and her voice becomes forceful as she makes a passionate case for better parenting. She is adamant that children cannot be helped unless you help their parents, mainly mothers, heal and become whole, first.

“Once parents are able to become self-sufficient and more confident in their parenting, our community will be a better place to live and work,” she says.

Although PCC began as a bare-bones basement recreation program for idle children and teens, including her own two sons, who were under siege from drug-related gunfire, Ms. Jones said the organization now exclusively deals with adults in order to create healthy families.

Through the years, the games and field trips for children at the community center evolved into computer training classes for teens and data-processing training for young adults, and finally into adult-oriented classes and workshops.

“I really felt that solutions begin at home,” she said. Some of the families she works with from the District government’s Housing First Program don’t have permanent housing.

PCC’s signature project is called “Move-On, A Life Changing Program.” Its mission, fulfilled through sometimes twice-daily parenting and child-rearing workshops, is to “assist parents in their ability to understand the needs of their children and make available to parents tools to effectively provide their children with nurturing, guidance and [a] living environment to raise healthy children with hope for the future.”

Parents must attend a certain number of sessions.

Kimely Holsey, 29, said Mother’s Day this year would be very different thanks to her participation in PCC’s programs and a short-term personal loan from Ms. Jones.

“I’m so happy and so blessed, and I’ve come a long way,” said Ms. Holsey. “This year I’m so excited that I will be celebrating with my family, and that feels great.”

Three of Ms. Holsey’s seven children are living with her now. She’s enrolled in a general educational development (GED) program, and Ms. Jones helped accelerate her move from a shelter into her own subsidized apartment.

“It made me feel good that [Ms. Jones] had trust and faith in me to do something that extreme for me with no problems and no questions asked,” Ms. Holsey said. “She’s kind of a mother figure, but not that deep. I think of her as more of a mentor.”

Ms. Holsey said that until a year ago, she was “hanging out and doing things to fit in” wherever she happened to be. Now, she listens and “takes more personal” advice from Ms. Jones because she has lived in the community and can relate to what this young mother has gone through. “Since I’ve been in the [PCC] program, I am more focused and more stable,” Ms. Holsey said. For example, she now has set mealtimes for her children.

Ms. Jones jokes that “sometimes I don’t remember when people come up to me and say. ‘Oh, Ms. Jones, remember when you helped me get a job,’ or ‘Oh, Ms. Jones, you helped me to get into college,’ or this and that, and I think to myself, ‘Oh, I did,’ ” she said. “That must have been so long ago.”

After all, it’s been 30 years since Ms. Jones, now 61 and a grandmother, convinced an apartment manager to give her a small basement space and her co-workers donated “a few table board games” to establish the Parklands Community Center because the children living in the neighborhood had no recreational facilities.

“If somebody had told me when I first started that, ‘Brenda Jones, in the future you’ll still be working here in 30 years,’ I would have said, ‘What?’ I never would have believed we’d be in this same situation.”

As a telling sign, Ms. Jones said she recently attended the 20th anniversary retirement party of a former PCC participant, who she had placed in the 1980s as an intern at the State Department.

Before founding the PCC, Ms. Jones was also an advisory neighborhood commissioner. Throughout her career, she has received numerous accolades for a laundry list of community service projects throughout the District. She is prominently featured in Hedrick Smith’s PBS documentary, “Across the River: The Rebirth of a Community.”

But Ms. Jones said the community is still suffering from vestiges of the 1980s crack epidemic, when there was so much child abuse and neglect. Those who were 5 and 6 years of age then are now 25 years old.

“They didn’t get the kind of upbringing necessary to make sure they have hope for the future,” she said. “What happened in the ‘80s had a huge impact on them.”

She said many of them - children who had children - never healed from their childhood experiences, and are now passing on some of those poor child-rearing behaviors to their own children.

“The parents themselves are still grieving from their past, and it’s very difficult to teach something they haven’t been taught,” she said. The challenge is “to help them overcome a lot of the pain and a lot of the anger for the situations they’re in.”

Ms. Jones does not understand why so many social service and health professionals with all kinds of degrees and “best practice” models cannot come up with a way to adequately deal with the untreated emotional and mental illness in the community.

She is equally frustrated when seeking help from city officials, who can’t grasp the scope of problems that require comprehensive services to help families. “They ask me if what I need is more money, and I say, ‘No, I don’t want more money; I want you to put me out of business.’ I’m not trying to pimp the poor or the sick.”

The biggest challenge facing her clients is trying to provide a safe, wholesome, self-sufficient environment in which to raise a family, and to do so without any public assistance. The biggest challenge facing Ms. Jones, she said, is having the resources to help parents meet their goals.

Saturday’s Mother’s Day family dinner was planned “to honor mothers because they are doing the best they can with the environment they live in,” she said.

The importance of good parenting is something Ms. Jones, the divorced mother of two boys, knows firsthand. She said her mother had a nervous breakdown and her father was not in the home, so it was a caring neighbor to whom she turned for the nurturing, mothering and guidance that helped her through her own trials.

“You always need somebody in the neighborhood to help those who need help,” she said.

Tall, thin, draped in Afrocentric garb and crowned by a head full of dreadlocks that are always in motion, Ms. Jones is a recognizable community fixture. She left her hometown neighborhood when others fled the drug-related violence but later returned, refusing to capitulate to dealers.

“I’m just a Southeast girl,” said Ms. Jones, a graduate of Spingarn Senior High School, who now lives in Ashford Court, which is part of the Camp Simms development project on which she served when some thought that program would never get off the ground.

Even the PCC has a new home located in the impressive complex known as THEARC, which also houses a variety of satellite programs, including Covenant House, the Boys and Girls Club, Children’s National Medical Center, the Washington Ballet, the Levine School of Music, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Washington Middle School for Girls.

“With all this new development and this wonderful new building and homes all around, there are still too many people in poverty,” she said.

If she could have one wish after all these years, Ms. Jones said, “I want to see, if not an end to poverty, a drastic reduction to poverty in D.C. and more comprehensive support and strengthening programs that target parents.”

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