Follow the money: FreeFest’s donations put a roof over homeless youths’ heads in Southeast


Before-and-after photos of the Re*Generation House, at 5032 D Street SE. About $400,000 raised in part from the Virgin Mobile FreeFest, helped to renovate the house that opened this year to house homeless young adults. (Courtesy of Sasha Bruce Youthwork)
September 19, 2013

That drink you’ll sip Saturday? The quick spin on the ferris wheel? All of it could have an effect on eight youths you’ve probably never met.

Since its inception in 2009, the Virgin Mobile FreeFest has been raising donations to combat youth homelessness. And this year, the giving has taken a concrete form.

With $400,000 raised at the 2011 FreeFest and through a matching donation from Virgin Mobile, a blighted property at 5032 D St. SE underwent dramatic renovations. The work was completed in January, creating a home for eight homeless young adults (ages 18 to 22) from Washington.

“The house that FreeFest built,” as Virgin calls it, is the Sasha Bruce RE*Generation house. There, homeless youths can live for 18 months to two years while learning work skills, planning life goals with counselors and benefiting from food on the table and a roof over their heads.

The donations from FreeFest “felt, like, from heaven,” says Deborah Shore, executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, an organization whose city funding was cut during the past year. “It is a lot to get that kind of help.”

Felicia Martin-Hill, who helped create the free festival as a brand manager at Virgin Mobile USA, says that when the Virgin Festival became FreeFest at the height of the recession, organizers decided that if they were going to do a free show, “people should pay it forward.” The company set up ways for concertgoers to text donations, make donations while reserving free tickets and drop off cash during the festival. A portion of drink proceeds from one bar and all money raised from the ferris wheel rides ($5 a pop) go to the cause as well.

The festivals have raised nearly $800,000, and Hill says about 40 percent of those who claim free tickets make donations when they get their passes.

Money raised at this year’s festival will go toward operating RE*Generation House for a year — an endeavor that requires more than $350,000.

Does Shore worry whether enough money will be raised? “Would it be great to know ahead? Of course!,” she says. “But the truth of the matter is that this is fantastic, and it’s such a large response this year.”

— Lavanya Ramanathan

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