- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 1999

As the saying goes, good things come in small packages. One of the greatest gifts to the children of a devastated, crime-plagued Northeast D.C. neighborhood comes in the person of a diminutive powerhouse, Rita Jackson. For more than 20 years, Mrs. Jackson has dedicated herself to providing comfort, guidance, opportunity and support to the children and teen-agers of one of the most problem-plagued areas of the city. Since she started her Northeast Performing Arts Group in 1979, Mrs. Jackson has redirected away from self-destruction the lives of more than 800 young people, raising their vision, instilling in them a sense of self-worth, and encouraging them to define and pursue their personal dreams. More than 100 young people have attended college, thanks to her efforts.

Mrs. Jackson's personal outreach, which has now evolved into multiple programs offering educational support, entrepreneurial training and life skills, began when this mother of two opened the doors of her two-bedroom public housing unit as a safe-house for eight at-risk youths. The first child Mrs. Jackson took in was an 11-year-old whose brother had been killed on the street. She recalls those days:

"They would just sleep on the floor, and you can imagine how crowded that little place was. I would be stepping on arms and legs, but I would just announce, 'Move out of my way, I'm coming through.' In the morning, they would fold up their blankets and get ready for their day school and other activities.

"We had very little. I would dole out tokens so they could get to and from school. We would budget to get tennis shoes for one child one month, and save to buy what someone else needed the next month. I would plan and save to make sure we could celebrate Christmas, and at least we never went hungry.

"Sometimes our suppers would be peanut butter, sometimes beans. But I'd say (just as my mother used to tell me), 'No one outside will know what we are eating unless we tell them.' If we had chicken, it was one piece a person, and I'd ask them to fill up on potatoes. I had a limited income but I was not going to put them on the street."

Mrs. Jackson recognized that a key to the liberation of the neighborhood's children rests in their education. Yet, she knew that setting educational goals was not enough. A host of other issue also had to be addressed. The young people needed a safe and secure haven from the surrounding violence, food and clothing, confidence in their ability and potential, an outlet for their frustrations, and help in healing the scars of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Undaunted, with a staff consisting completely of young people and parents she had mentored, Mrs. Jackson developed ways to meet all of those needs.

"Save Our Seed," for example, is a mentoring program in which young people take responsibility to tutor others. "College All Aboard" was launched to help young people prepare, both academically and financially, to go to college. This included assistance in completing college applications, help in gathering information about possible scholarship opportunities, and guidance in choosing a college. The Northeast Performing Arts Group functioned as a hub for all of these activities, and provided training in ballet, tap, modern and African dance as well as voice lessons.

Mrs. Jackson recognized that even those who had received scholarships and grants still needed money for books, materials and living expenses. With jobs scarce, Rita worked to provide entrepreneurial opportunities for her young people and created Young Entrepreneurs Succeeding (YES), which offered guidance in conducting market studies, product development and financial management for youth-owned businesses. With the support of YES, one college-bound teen launched a balloon company that netted $3,000 in the course of a summer.

For some young people who were nearly overpowered by the difficulties they faced, Mrs. Jackson's guidance has meant, literally, the difference between life and death. One young man who made it through college set out for New York City to launch his career but found his dreams dashed. Despondent, he was on the verge of suicide when he called Mrs. Jackson. "I was in tears," he recalls, "I told her I was a failure." He still carries Mrs. Jackson's reply in his heart, "Son, if you don't accomplish another thing, your life has already been a success. Look at what you've done so far."

The youth pulled himself together and returned to his neighborhood to begin work as a substitute teacher and the director of a local community center, with hopes of going on to law school. In a world fraught with obstacles and challenges and often with defeat Mrs. Jackson has a clear message for her children. Failure is not in her vocabulary:

"I tell my kids, 'If you don't succeed at something, that is preparation for something else: It's not failure. Whatever trials you go through are of value. You are being prepared for something larger.'"

During this holiday season, and far beyond, there is truly one "gift that keeps on giving" Rita Jackson. Modest about the impact of her outreach, Rita says, "There is no way to fast forward and know how the young people will look back on these programs. But I have seen the joy in their eyes, and I have heard it in their voices. I have watched them take a bow and stand up with new pride and determination."

Rita Jackson has been a blessing to all those whose lives she has touched. She is truly a Washington treasure but a treasure without a treasury. She could use your help. If you would like to contribute to support her efforts, please call 202/388-1274.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is the president and founder of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and the author of "The Triumphs of Joseph: How Today's Community Healers Are Reclaiming Our Streets and Neighborhoods." If you know of another Mrs. Jackson, you can contact Mr. Woodson at [email protected]

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