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CITIZEN JOURNALISM: House remakes neighborhood

- The Washington Times - Monday, November 9, 2009

America has far too many "at risk" neighborhoods. Anacostia, right here in the shadow of the Capitol, is one of them. However, such neighborhoods can become places of promise and opportunity instead of fear and violence.

An exciting engine of neighborhood -- and individual -- transformation is the House in Southeast Washington. Opened 10 years ago this month, the House DC offers a remarkably successful after-school program carried out in an unlikely location -- in three former crack houses on a troubled street once dubbed "Murder Row." Now affectionately called "Life Row," the hopeless street of the late 20th century has been transformed. Even more important, so have young lives.

Since its opening in November 1999, hundreds of young people have participated in a robust array of life-changing programs at the House, a safe place where every afternoon from Tuesday through Friday, 50 to 60 students -- primarily from Anacostia High School, just one block away -- come to hang out.

Educational statistics at the House speak volumes. Even as Anacostia High struggles with a tragic graduation rate of just 43 percent, 100 percent of high school seniors attending programs at the House have graduated in each of the past two years. Twenty of these alumni are attending college. The House's academic and life-skills coach, Jonathan Harris, recognizes the background reality: "Retention is difficult with these students, and so we are especially proud that our students are not only going to college, but staying there."

Who are these kids? Many of them are tough, but like all teenagers, they need to be showered with love and directed with wise guidance. Many have been involved with school truancy and juvenile court. Many are victims of parental abandonment, abuse of various kinds, neighborhood violence and the drug culture. Many have had a sacred trust broken by adults. For many of the students who enter the House, the relationships they encounter there offer the most stable and homelike experiences in their lives.

On entering the House, students are met by trained staff members, all of whom are caring adults who connect with the students "where they are." Healthy relationships form based on honesty, trust, courtesy, caring and treating everyone with basic dignity. Students walk into a game room where generous donors have provided a weight room, a big-screen TV, pool tables and (healthy) video games. According to program manager Andrea Counts, "This is where a lot of relationships happen."

Upstairs, dinner is served every night. A family time is held when staff and students sit down with each other. For many students, this is the most consistent nourishment -- physical and emotional -- they have each week.

Music thrives. With guidance from sound engineer J.T. Thompson, a professional musician, the upstairs recording studio hums with original raps and songs composed by the students. At this nerve center, students use state-of-the-art sound equipment to express emotions and develop skills. One alumnus of the House is earning high grades at the Art Institute of Washington; another recently appeared on a nationally televised anti-smoking ad produced by the American Lung Association. The House is a place where homework gets done. In the upstairs computer lab, students explore the Internet with supervision.

Academic coach Harris not only oversees homework assignments but helps students chart their course through high school, to set goals and then achieve them. When problems arise, Mr. Harris is there as a mentor and mediator. He is a familiar presence -- and welcome ally -- to the administration and staff at Anacostia.

Unabashedly faith-based, the House's philosophy and worldview reflect a deep spiritual commitment. All are welcome, regardless of faith walk (or lack of one), but once a week, youth pastor Warren Smith offers Life Sessions, voluntary Bible studies designed to help students come to a deeper understanding of the life issues confronting them. One student recalls that he attended programs for two years before finally attending Life Sessions. He says he has since come to a belief in God and been baptized.

As President La Wonda Harris says, "These wonderful students' lives have meaning, and we share that hope with them -- the hope that God loves them and has a purpose for them."

Success stories abound. One teen mom had dropped out of school and simply given up. She had no father in her life, her mother was on drugs, and an abusive boyfriend was living in the home. The House gave her, in her own words, "hope beyond imagination." She has gone on to earn her high school diploma and become a certified chef with a stable job in a great restaurant in Washington. She is raising her child in a loving and supportive environment. She speaks powerfully of her life-changing experience: "I thought it was over for me. I wanted it to be over for me. But because the House didn't give up on me, I will never give up on myself or my child."

Too many neighborhoods in America will remain at risk, but the House has a proven, faith-based formula for transformation -- one young life at a time. For 10 years, it has served as a lighthouse for many of Southeast Washington's at-risk youth. Happy anniversary, and many happy returns to a program that works - and works well.

• Ken Starr is dean of the Pepperdine University School of Law and has served on the advisory board of the House since its inception 10 years ago.