- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007

Christina Whatley, 17, spent a recent Saturday afternoon at the Town Hall Education, Arts & Recreation Campus (THEARC), a performing-arts venue in Southeast, celebrating Black History Month by making African-inspired jewelry, listening to African drumming and watching Capoeira (Brazilian martial arts with African roots).

“This is a great way for me to stay connected to the African-American community,” said Christina, who is black and goes to a predominantly white private school, Georgetown Day School. “I’m usually not exposed to Afrocentric things. At school, it’s all Eurocentric.”

Christina and her mother, Annie Whatley, are members of Jack and Jill of America Inc., a national nonprofit group for black families that has been around more than 70 years. The Black History Month event they attended at THEARC was called Jumoke (a West African word that means “the one who loves the child”). The event was organized by the D.C. chapter of Jack and Jill.

“Jack and Jill programs and activities help our children know their roots and keep our traditions going. That’s important for everyone,” Mrs. Whatley said while stringing black beads in the jewelry-making room during Jumoke, which also featured catered food, African dance and a live performance by the Ballou High School marching band.

Nationally, the group has hundreds of chapters, but they all share the same goals. Those goals include creating opportunities for black children to develop leadership skills and socialize in positive, educational settings (member mothers organize monthly activities for their children); to support and educate mothers on child-rearing issues; and to help those less fortunate in the black community.

“A lot of the children in Jack and Jill come from affluent families, and many doors will be opened for them,” said Jacqueline Moore Bowles, national president for Jack and Jill.

“But we want to instill in them that it can’t be considered progress unless you step back and help bring someone else along with you,” said Mrs. Moore Bowles, who also attended the Jumoke event, which is in its 18th year.

Traditionally, Jack and Jill attracted affluent or at least middle-class black families, said Debra Lee, chairman and chief executive officer of the D.C.-based BET (Black Entertainment Television) and a member of the D.C. chapter of Jack and Jill.

“Jack and Jill was very snobby when I was growing up, and as a child, I never wanted to be part of it,” said Ms. Lee, who grew up in Greensboro, S.C.

Now a mother of two, she has been a member of Jack and Jill for about 10 years and thinks the world of the group.

“I think it’s evolved since when I was a child,” she said. “It still offers networking opportunities for young African-American children, but it also provides a charitable component, which is really important.”

Those networking opportunities revolve around activities organized by member mothers, such as Ms. Lee. They include museum visits, ski trips, fundraising for the homeless, book collections for the pediatric unit at Howard University Hospital and lessons on such varying subjects as the principles of Kwanzaa and the ABCs of personal finances. All activities have in common the goal of helping develop children who are ready for leadership roles in society.

“We want our children to be well-rounded, to know about public speaking, about legislative issues, about wealth-building,” Mrs. Moore Bowles said. “We want them to be able to make that transition from the classroom to boardroom.”

In order for the boardroom goal to become a reality for others than the affluent few, the group created a charitable arm, the Jack and Jill Foundation, in 1968. It gives a lot of its money, raised by member families, toward college scholarships and summer-camp tuition for children from modest backgrounds.

Darren McCutchen, 18, who attends St. Mary’s College in Maryland, applied for and received $1,500 from the foundation last year. He’s double-majoring in economics and math.

“It makes a difference. I didn’t want to be a burden to my parents, and this scholarship is helping me pay my own way,” Mr. McCutchen said during a recent phone interview from his campus.

“Most of our focus is on leadership development in children,” said foundation President Grace Speights. “On a very basic level, that means ensuring that children can continue their education. If not, they don’t have chance to become leaders in our society.”

The foundation will be hosting its first fundraising gala at 8 p.m. April 28 at the National Music Center and Museum Foundation, formerly the City Museum, in Northwest. Tickets cost $150 per person. (For more information about the gala, call 202/232-5290.) The goal is to honor prominent families and build the foundation’s endowment, Mrs. Speights said.

Another — less ordinary — recipient of foundation money is Jackie Thompson, a single mother of quintuplets who lives in the District’s Brookland area. Jack and Jill “adopted” the Thompson family nine years ago, when Ms. Thompson had recently given birth to her children.

“They’ve done so much for me. They’ve made sure we had Christmas gifts for the children; they’ve helped me pay for utilities when they were cut off; they’ve helped me put gas in the car,” Ms. Thompson said. “You know how they say it takes a village to raise children? Well, Jack and Jill are part of my village.”

The group also sends her children to summer camp in North Brookfield, Mass., for two weeks each summer and will do so until the children turn 16.

“The children really love it and look forward to it all year long,” Ms. Thompson said. “They just wish they could stay longer.”

Ms. Thompson is not a member of Jack and Jill, but she said she’s considering joining. Mrs. Moore Bowles reiterated that the group is open to everyone, except, she added: “We do believe in traditional values: Respect yourself, respect adults, respect women. … If those are not your values, our organization may not be for you.”

The chapter groups usually meet about once a month. The dues are about $290 per family a year.

For Gina Adams, who chaired the Jumoke event this year, this inclusiveness is very important.

“I hope we continue to grow and that we will become an even more socioeconomically diverse organization,” said Mrs. Adams, senior vice president of governmental affairs for FedEx.

“I grew up in Southeast, and it’s important to me that we are including different kinds of families. It’s essential that this organization is not seen only as an African-American, middle-class social club,” she said while walking toward a room at THEARC during Jumoke that encouraged black children to trace their family history. The room, referred to as the social-awareness room, also had an exhibit on Darfur.

To encourage inclusiveness, Mrs. Adams decided to hold the Jumoke in Southeast, at THEARC, in a low-income neighborhood. In the past, it’s always been held in Northwest.

Several hundred people showed up, and many of them were local families, for example the Marshall family. Michelle and Darrell Marshall attended the all-day event with their children Maia, 7, and Avery, 6 months, as well as a niece, a nephew and a granddaughter.

Mrs. Marshall had heard about the Jumoke event on the news.

“I think it’s great — they’ve really made an effort to include the neighborhood,” Mrs. Marshall said. “We’ve been here all day, and it’s been a lot of fun. … The children learned a lot. They’re exhausted.”

Her daughter Maia, who regularly takes ballet lessons at THEARC, said she particularly enjoyed participating in the Capoeira class.

“We played instruments; we were singing; and we got to dance-fight,” Maia said. “I liked that the best.”

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