- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Staff writer Denise Barnes interviewed Mark Bergel, executive director of A Wider Circle Inc.

Question: What does A Wider Circle do?

Answer: Well, we have a holistic approach to serving people in need, and what I mean by that is, we have programs for both the inner and outer conditions. The inner work focuses on educating people on their ability to create greater well-being and a more desired reality for themselves. That’s what this is about.

For example, we will go into organizations that work with children and teach them how to do simple relaxation exercises and maybe some visualization. In other words, we will have them visualize what they would like to do in the future. Then, we will sit together and have them write down what it will take for them to achieve their goals. We start working with children as early as 6 and 7 years old because that’s really when their ideas about their lives become ingrained in their minds.

However, we’ve noticed when we get to high school students the vision gets narrower as they get older, and it should go the other way around. By the time children start developing all of their mental skills, they should say: “I can do anything.” So, our programs are geared to teach children and, of course, adults how to use their inner resources.

With adults, we focus on stress management, anger management and nutrition. Nutrition is critical because food is energy, and if you can eat well and you understand what food and drink can do in the body, then you can change the chemicals the body produces. The body is constantly producing chemicals. Our thoughts and our emotions dramatically affect the chemicals our bodies produce. So, we want to help people produce chemicals that will serve them better. It’s the difference between producing endorphins, which are healing chemicals, or adrenaline or cortisol, which if produced continually inhibits learning, memory and wears you down. And so stress management is a big part of what we do. If a person can change their thoughts, they can change their lives.

Q: How does environment affect a person’s outlook?

A: You know, Hippocrates was right on when he said, “If you really want to heal somebody, know everything about them and then go see where they live.” Self-esteem is directly influenced by environment. If people are living in run-down buildings, perhaps their outer environments say they are not worthy of having what people in nice neighborhoods have, and I think our subconscious expectations for ourselves are much less. We [at A Wider Circle] are so committed to helping people see themselves differently that we can’t be naive to the fact that if they go back to run-down, neglected neighborhoods or homes, it’s going to be that much more difficult for positive change to occur.

On the other hand, we have seen that some of our community outreach efforts, whether it’s painting murals in a shelter or distributing donations or plants or pictures, provide a daily uplift to people, and we all need a daily uplift. It’s physiologically proven. It’s a nice way for us to bring in that holistic approach and emphasize the outer conditions.

Q: How many workshops has the organization conducted, and who do you work with?

A: We’ve done more than 100 workshops since we began operations [in the fall of 2001], and we are quickly filling up our schedules for the next six months with shelters and schools.

We work closely with many local organizations that help women and children, which include N Street Village, Jubilee Jobs, My Sister’s Place, Park Road Shelter, Sasha Bruce House, Mary Center, and the Stepping Stone Shelter in Rockville. And, we have talked with several schools and held workshops at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School.

We plan to start our school initiatives in January so that we can bring the workshops into area schools to complement core curriculums. Ideally, we would like to be the providers of health and wellness information to those who it would otherwise be unavailable.

Q: Why did you found the organization?

A: Just going around the city and seeing how people are living — both adults and children. I delivered food as part of an emergency food program two years ago. I have a doctorate in sociology, and I had learned a lot, but it didn’t have any meaning to me to have the statistics on poverty; I needed to be able to change it.

Life is a verb: It doesn’t matter what we say we care about it unless we do something about it. I would go into apartments on beautiful, sunny days and the apartments would be dark inside because people had to keep their blinds down because they couldn’t afford air conditioning. That’s the metaphor I saw in the first apartment I walked into.

I didn’t just deliver food. I would sit or stand and talk with people, and we would connect. They would open up for whatever reason. I must have visited 50 homes in the first couple of months in each quadrant of the District, and I was shocked at the breadth of poverty in our region and exhilarated by the connection and seeing what we could do, seeing how I could bring my background to help create solutions.

That’s kind of how it happened. We have a great team of volunteers and interns who are committed to serving people and who make the organization go.

Q: Are you planning any events?

A: We’re doing workshops and smaller community service efforts all the time, but we have planned a big event in January. It’s called “A D.C. Housewarming” on January 24 in Columbia Heights in Northwest. We’re going to have books, clothes, home goods, and people can come in and get what they need. We built a grocery store to expose people to healthy, nutritious foods. Plus, we will have yoga and cooking demonstrations, health experts from various fields, and entertainment. We invite experts to speak so children can see what they can do and become. It’s a free event, and since it will take place in January, many of the items are geared towards keeping people warm during the winter.

That’s one aspect. We will also have lots of home goods to give to people to beautify their homes. Everything we do has a wellness emphasis.

Q: What does the organization need?

A: It’s a challenging economy, but the challenge is even greater for the people we serve. So in order for us to grow and sustain ourselves, we need financial support.

Right now, we’ve kind of outgrown our office space in Bethesda, and we’re looking for office space in or close to the District. And, we’re always open to new volunteers. Human capital helps us grow.

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