Dana Milbank
Opinion writer April 26, 2013

This last weekend of April displayed the very best and the very worst of Washington.

The worst is the part most of the country sees most of the time in the capital: the triumph of money and power.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

At the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and its related soirees, media companies and lobbyists spend many millions of dollars over a 24-hour period feting Hollywood celebrities and politicians. The dinner’s charitable origins were long ago obscured by journalists’ desire to be players — to flatter the powerful and the famous and to feel powerful and famous themselves, at least for one night. Lost in this cozy celebration of wealth and fame is the journalistic notion of holding the powerful to account without fear or favor.

Less noticed by the rest of the country, Washington also had its best on display Saturday.

In Meadowbrook Park in Chevy Chase, just a few hundred feet from the D.C. line, several hundred people assembled Saturday morning in a Race to End Poverty. Sponsored by the local nonprofit A Wider Circle, the race was a 4K — a nod to the group’s hope of furnishing 4,000 homes this year for people living in poverty in the Washington area. The organizers are motivated by the same thing that drives so many people who come to the capital with youthful optimism: a belief that their actions can change the world.

In financial terms, the battle between cynicism and idealism is no contest. The nonprofit hoped to raise $25,000. Media companies and lobbying outfits probably spent that much on party favors alone this weekend.

I’ve volunteered at A Wider Circle on and off for several years through my daughter’s school. She and I have spent Sunday afternoons sorting food donations, assembling gift baskets for new mothers and examining furniture donations to see whether the pieces are in “dignity condition” — of a quality that the recipients won’t feel as though they are being given others’ refuse.

Before long, any volunteer at A Wider Circle, which is based in Silver Spring, learns the lore of its founder. Mark Bergel, who has a PhD in sociology, was teaching at American University a dozen years ago when he decided to launch A Wider Circle, named after Einstein’s admonition to free ourselves from self-centeredness by “widening our circles of compassion.”

A few years in, Bergel plopped down on his bed after one of his 15-hour days. “I thought, this feels great,” he told me. “And then I thought, I have to get rid of this. The people we serve don’t get this moment. I don’t want this moment.”

And so Bergel, now 50, donated his bed and instead alternates between the couch and the floor of his small apartment in Bethesda. He drives to work in his Honda Fit subcompact and pays himself a salary of $48,000 (overhead at his charity is kept to an exemplary 3 percent of its $1.5 million in revenue). His ascetic existence, he says, helps him “keep in mind what it feels like not to have something so basic as a bed.”

Bergel has expanded his operation from furniture, linens and baby items to training and professional clothes for job seekers. Now he’s attempting to match poor families with volunteers who will assist them over the long term. Bergel has furnished housing for 63,000 people with an average annual household income of $12,000.

Does it work? Bergel admits that in follow-up calls to those whose homes A Wider Circle has furnished, more than half don’t have working telephones after six months. On the other hand, this means nearly half of them still do.

What’s extraordinary is that A Wider Circle has done all this without church affiliation and with precious little from the government: Montgomery County gives Bergel less than 10 percent of his revenue, he said, and the District, whose residents make up half of Bergel’s clients, gives nothing.

“If there’s one thing I haven’t done as well, it’s pursue funding with the vigor we pursue service, and that’s one of the paradoxes of doing this work,” Bergel said. “I chose this because I don’t care about money. . . . And then as soon as you start the organization you realize, hmm, we need money. So you think about money every day.”

It’s a sign of hope that people such as Bergel still exist in the capital. It’s a sign of shame that Bergel goes begging while fat cats, politicians, media heavyweights and celebrities toast each other at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

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