- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2005

Surely you’ve heard that “many hands make the load light.”

Well, the Helping Hands Network could use a few more limbs for their annual spring mission this weekend.

Just as folks pull on garden gloves to plant spring annuals, Olishia Johnson Robinson pulls on plastic gloves and begins digging into loaves of bread, packs of bologna and boxes of cookies to provide brown bag lunches for the District’s homeless.

“When I was working downtown, I noticed lots of trucks providing hot meals or handing out canned goods to feed the homeless in the winter, but I didn’t see anyone doing anything in the spring,” said Mrs. Robinson, 38, of Oxon Hill.

So she started the nonprofit Helping Hands Network in 1998 with $30 “out of my own pocket” and $20 from a girlfriend. The pair drove to Fort Dupont Park in Southeast and passed out 20 brown bags, each containing two sandwiches, chips, a drink and a piece of fruit.

In 2001, her supervisor donated $50 and they fed 150 persons.

“The first year, I really didn’t know what to expect, and we passed out our little 20 bag lunches pretty quick. After we ran out, we could see everybody running up to ask if we had any more,” she said.

The next year, “we still didn’t have enough.”

The annual springtime project has grown, thanks to tax-deductible donations from friends, organizations and businesses.

This year, Mrs. Robinson set a goal of distributing 1,000 bag lunches “wherever we find the homeless.”

Mrs. Robinson got a big boost this spring from St. Martin’s Catholic Church, 1908 N. Capitol St. NW, which provided space to her group to pack the bag lunches at 10 a.m. Saturday.

“This is my baby; this is my passion,” Mrs. Robinson said of the Helping Hands Network. Her ultimate dream is to hand out 2,500 lunches.

When she was working near 19th and L streets NW in the early 1990s, Mrs. Robinson was frequently approached by homeless panhandlers. “I admit I was getting a little irritated, thinking, OK, I already gave five times today.”

Then a personal loss changed her outlook.

“I learned that my uncle passed, and he was homeless,” she said. “I wondered how people treated him or looked at him, and that changed everything. I said I would never look at another homeless person like that again.”

Her uncle, Butch Howard, 40, of Baltimore, had been in the Army, “not on drugs, and he had a family” when he died in 1990. She still does not know how he died.

Mrs. Robinson, an employee of Northrop Grumman, starts sending out solicitation letters for the project in February. Then she shops and collects all the donated food and paper products.

She makes the sandwiches as well as delivers them. She appears to be a meticulous bookkeeper, too, determined to “count every slice of bologna and every slice of bread.”

One year, Mrs. Robinson joked about miscalculating the amount of bread needed, “forgetting you need two slices of bread to make a sandwich.” But, she said, “God is good [because] people just started digging in their pockets and giving a dollar here and a dollar there, and we ran to the corner store to buy more bread.”

Current sponsors include Nabisco, Wonder Bread, Pepsi, the International Association of Administrative Professions and Lo-Kee (Lasting Outlook Keeping Everyone Equal) Sports.

Her husband, Antwon, 33, co-owns Lo-Kee Sports and ZZ&T; Amusements, an entertainment equipment and clothing company, with Zachary Ford and Roderick Diggs. This community-conscious company also is involved with several charity and volunteer activities mostly aimed at helping troubled youth.

Mr. Robinson, who also works for Northwest Airlines, and his partners often donate funds and rental services — such as snow cone and cotton candy machines and Moon Bounce and dunk-tank amusements — to groups sponsoring parties or fundraisers for youth programs.

Mrs. Robinson welcomes new volunteers and donors to help with the increased shopping, packing and distributing. She also encourages children to participate with Helping Hands “to show them that helping others is about doing.”

She certifies community service hours for students who need them to graduate, and for people on parole or probation who need court-ordered hours.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Robinson is troubled by people who do not honor their promises to lend a helping hand.

“They know my heart. They know what I’m trying to do, and I have to track them down. When I see them wining and dining and living well, that’s what really hurts, especially with friends,” she said. However, “for everyone who didn’t come through, a stranger stepped in.”

As Mrs. Robinson suggests, “Ask yourself, have you helped anyone lately? This is your chance.”

Remember, many helping hands make the load light.

For more information, contact Olishia Johnson Robinson at 240/416-2045 or at Olishia@aol.com.

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