Rays of Sunshine in Carver Terrace

Charlene Coleman and her sons Tyrone, 11, and Markee, 8, at their Carver Terrace home.
Charlene Coleman and her sons Tyrone, 11, and Markee, 8, at their Carver Terrace home. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Charlene Coleman
Thursday, December 21, 2006

When I look around my neighborhood, I see too many shattered lives: children whose fathers left long ago or got swept up in the criminal justice system. Too often there are mothers whose pain is being numbed by drugs, leaving kids to raise themselves. I know; I was once one of them. Both of my boys were born addicted to the drugs that caught me, too. We know about war where I live in the Carver Terrace Community.

Carver Terrace is made up of of two privately owned properties and a government housing complex in Northeast Washington. There are often drive-bys and other causalities of the violent conflict born of poverty and neglect. Recently, 12 shootings left two dead. Again, my neighborhood was in the news for negative attention about problems, but no solutions.

If you were to ask a youth about the future -- "What do you want to be when you grow up?" -- many would look at you like you were crazy. For many of them, just to grow up and live past 25 is a miracle.

It's a place that often seems forgotten by the rest of the city. It's hard for me as a mother to raise the two beautiful boys who are my life and my soul. While I know I can't change the past, I am proud that I always kept them with me, even when I entered a drug treatment program and embraced a better life. I want to make up for the times I was on drugs. I want to give them a life of possibility and hope. Sometimes, living in Carver Terrace, it seems impossible to do that.

The schools my boys go to are crumbling. The kids are forced to go to school in a "school without walls" environment that is noisy, loud and distracting, and my little boy has an attention-deficit disorder. I'm an adult and it's hard for me to focus in a school like that. We support our principal and teachers, who work hard, but we need help. We are fighting to keep our school against huge odds in a city that doesn't seem to care about us in Carver Terrace.

But there is some sunshine in our dark corner of the world, two programs that have brought hope to my family and many of the Carver Terrace kids. The first is Youth Safe Haven, where police act as mentors and provide community policing. It has inspired my youngest son, who has some learning disabilities, and keeps him excited about education and eager about his own future. Also, there is a Quantum Opportunities program, a computer-based, after-school learning program for high school students that also helps them save for college. My son went from failing to passing in school. He is daring to dream now. My children have goals now. My younger son wants to be a lawyer, while the older wants to be either a football player or a judge. For me, just to see them dream is the greatest gift one could get.

The programs are funded by the Eisenhower Foundation as part of its commitment to reduce poverty and racial inequality. The foundation calls this approach "multiple solutions to multiple problems," which means there would be help for everyone in our community, from ex-offender programs (which we critically need) to job training for high school dropouts to full-service community schools. But because of a lack of money, only two of the many programs they offer exist right now in Carver Terrace.

At times, I have felt like my sons and I were drowning under the weight of this life, and these programs have been a lifeline for us. My son's mentor from the Youth Safe Haven is Mr. Reggie. He is always available to come over and work with my son. When we have problems, he refers me to the right agencies that help me to better myself for my kids.

As a strong single mother and devoted school volunteer, I am sometimes just too exhausted after taking care of all my work all day to help my kids with their homework. Other times, I don't know all of the material. I thank God that I have found a safe place that my kids and other students can go to get homework help and a hot meal, and be with staff members who are not afraid to work in this area.

The life skills and tools that my kids have learned there will allow them to become successful and stay away from the violent streets. I often partake in the activities myself. When I think of how much Mr Reggie and the program helps my boys, sometimes I just cry.

I worry that this little bit of sunshine is about to be taken away from us. Neither the city nor the federal government has offered to help support the programs. Even the police don't have their overtime paid by the city. You would think that with the proven results and kind of assistance the youth safe havens and Quantum Opportunities provide our community, the city would not just want to fund these programs but duplicate them throughout D.C. There are too many times when I see officers just sitting outside of the center and they won't come in to help or get to know our kids. If the city wants to stop crime, working with our youth is how we are going to do it.

In programs like this around the country, teenage pregnancy is reduced, kids' grades improve and the teens are far less likely to get in trouble with the law. Without funds from the city, the youth safe haven and Quantum Opportunties program may have to close. We hope that the federal government and the new mayor, who seems really dedicated to education, will bring a change.

Maybe the new mayor can transfer some of the money that now goes to support opera houses or baseball stadiums and join those working in my community in helping to give the precious children of Carver Terrace a chance, a future, a better life.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company