Helping Those You Can, Because You Can

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, December 16, 2007

L ike many other office workers who commute into the city, Ed Wilczynski wanted something more. He liked his job in information technology at the IRS but craved a way to make a difference. He volunteered at a D.C. elementary school but quickly realized that a white guy from the suburbs wasn't going to make a dent in the lives of poor black kids growing up where the role models too often were crack mules on the street.

In 1996, Wilczynski went to see George Kettle, a wealthy man in Potomac who brought the Century 21 real estate business to the Washington area.

Twenty years ago, Kettle had stood before sixth-graders at a Southeast Washington school and announced that "I'm the whitey from Virginia" who promised to pay whatever it took to send every child in the room to college.

Many kids at Winston Educational Center that day had little idea what Kettle's commitment really meant, but two decades later, the students to whom Kettle devoted hundreds of hours and $600,000 are more successful than not. A few ended up on the streets, but most are managers, teachers, police officers.

In '96, Wilczynski persuaded Kettle to promise college to 60 third-graders at Brent Elementary on Capitol Hill, working through the I Have A Dream Foundation. The foundation, which grew out of New York philanthropist Eugene Lang's decision to adopt a class in East Harlem in the early 1980s, has matched wealthy donors with low-income kids in 180 U.S. schools, including a half-dozen in Washington.

Eleven years later, in a school system that graduates fewer than 60 percent of its students, 90 percent of Wilczynski and Kettle's Dreamers finished high school on time. Seven in 10 are in college or, in a few cases, trade school.

At Brent, Wilczynski and Kettle hired Tracy Proctor to act as hands-on mentor for the students. Proctor, a product of Southeast, had an office at the school, then followed the Dreamers as they dispersed to 31 high schools in the District, Maryland and Virginia, and as far away as Georgia.

In third grade, "my mind was not focused on college," says Sherryl Grant, a Dreamer at Brent, now 20 years old. Proctor "was a stranger to me. I didn't like that he was always in my business. Then in fourth grade, I fell off the sliding board at recess on my birthday and broke my arm badly. Nobody could track down my parents. Mr. Proctor pops into the nurse's office and stayed with me through the whole thing. I learned then that he's pretty for real."

Grant, a sophomore at Vanderbilt, still seeks Proctor's advice on big life decisions and on daily study skills. "If you fall, they're still there," she says. "These people really do mean what they say."

Kettle and Wilczynski have put about $1.2 million into the Brent class. Each child needs different services -- pants, shoes, turkeys for Christmas, a math tutor, college tours, a lawyer, a dentist.

Kettle, 79, believes God gave him wealth to provide opportunity to those who are without. Wilczynski, 56, says "people who know how to get things done have an obligation to step in when the system isn't working."

Kettle says his money made a big difference for some kids, but it's the constancy of presence that really worked in many cases. "Kids just want to hold your hand," he says. "They're desperate for somebody to tell them they love them."

At a dinner he throws for his first class every year, Kettle sees the girl who grew up to work in a big job at the CIA, the young woman who pushed through eight years of emotional struggle but finally got through college, and the young man who tried to kill himself in high school, got help and is now a union electrician making $34 an hour.

Proctor reels off the list of colleges his students attend -- Temple, Syracuse, Maryland, Grinnell -- and then drifts back to when they were in elementary school, when Dreamers began to pressure one another not to slip into the streets. "You're going to mess up your scholarship," kids would tell each other.

Some do. A student in Proctor's first class -- now that the Brent kids are in college, he's started over with his third class of Dreamers -- is "one of the biggest drug dealers in Seat Pleasant," he says. He still checks in with the dealer, offering classes toward a diploma. "Once a Dreamer, always a Dreamer," Proctor says.

Most Dreamers stick with the program. One student in Proctor's first class, sponsored by Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, has her own law firm and recently turned down a potential client who wanted to file suit against someone at Pollin's company. "I'm sorry," the Dreamer said, "I can't sue Abe Pollin; he put me through college."

For many Dreamers, especially the boys, Proctor, 43, serves as a surrogate father. In Kettle's first class, only eight of 58 students came from two-parent homes. Proctor got so deeply involved with Pollin's Dreamers that he promised them that he and his wife would not have children of their own until their class finished high school. (He kept his promise.)

The sponsors say they're not bothered by the limited reach of the Dreamers concept. "You can help who you can help," Wilczynski says. "What eats at me is the 99 percent of wealthy people who are just thinking about their place on the Forbes rich list. Where are they?"

Kyle Mimms, a Dreamer at Brent, is in his second year at Temple. "Just the fact that we were adopted, it made you feel special in school and your neighborhood," he says. "In a society where people think you won't succeed, here come these guys who say, 'You are going to make it.' It was strange, but honestly, I don't think I'd be in this same situation without it.

"Really, it showed me how to see life. In D.C. public schools, I had classes where there's just no teacher -- somebody leaves and they're not replaced. The teachers get resigned and don't feel the need to go above and beyond anymore. Coming out of a single-parent household, Mr. Proctor was like a father figure to all of us."

Mimms, 18, speaks to Proctor every couple of weeks. Over Christmas break, they're getting together for pizza.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company