- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 13, 2001

Vernon Wise was a gang warrior in 1997. He had been involved in a bloody turf battle that had terrorized the Benning Terrace neighborhood, where the violence cost the life of Darryl Hall, a 12-year-old boy. Today, however, that neighborhood is quiet, and Mr. Wise is a computer installer in the telecommunications industry.

Just what was the impetus for his remarkable, life-transforming change? For the most part, Mr. Wise drew on untapped reserves to overcome very unfortunate, and perhaps even dire, circumstances. And the faithful and dedicated helped him discover those reserves. Robert Woodson Sr., the founder of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, and David Gilmore, receiver for the District´s Housing Authority, both had an enormous impact on Mr. Wise´s life and those of the other young men who had been feuding in Benning Terrace.

In 1997, Mr. Woodson opened up his office as a neutral zone for the warring gangs to meet. Many were so skeptical a truce would be called they arrived in bullet proof vests. But in a short amount of time, they would be planting flowers, repairing plumbing, doing electrical work, etc. as part of a community renewal program in the very neighborhood they were feuding in. “He helped us understand that there´s more to life than shooting each other in this one block radius,” Mr. Wise said of Mr. Woodson in an interview with the editorial page. But more than anything, he just listened, and gave the young men the opportunity to listen to each other, Mr. Wise added. “Nobody came up with a solid reason why” the fighting erupted, he said.

Mr. Gilmore, meanwhile, heard about Mr. Woodson´s efforts, and wanted to help. As a housing authority official, he trained the former gang members in various crafts to work on their neighborhoods, paying them minimum wage. “From there we branched off and got higher salaries,” Mr. Wise said.

This story has been told before, but it is rarely noted that the story continues. After the headline-catching truce was called, Mr. Wise said Mr. Woodson continues to be a central figure in his life. And peace in the neighborhood continues. “He didn´t just walk away after things quieted down,” he said. “Every time I´m around him I´m learning something.”

Today Mr. Woodson´s main mission is to give small, outreach outfits training to maximize their efforts. Most of Mr. Woodson´s expenses go toward hiring accountants and other specialized consultants. And he has also been instrumental in helping faith-based and charity organizations find funding.

Given the recent controversy over President Bush´s proposed faith-based initiative, it is important to note the significant contributions grassroots efforts can make. Individuals in need should certainly make their own decisions as to who they want to turn to, while the government should in turn fund the charities that individuals seek out, in equal proportions to their demand a concept known as charitable choice.

A well-coordinated public effort to energize charitable choice could have an incalculable impact on many communities, and lives. Clearly, Mr. Woodson´s outfit helped Mr. Wise personally. “He just put me in the right direction, and I haven´t looked back since,” he said.

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