D.C. Bar Owner Gives Neighborhood Kids a Beach Break

Every summer, Bill Duggan, owner of Madam's Organ bar in the District, brings 40 city kids to his homes on the Delaware shore, a generous impulse that has become a tradition.
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009

On a motorboat off the Delaware coast, gusts of wind sent Shanice Brown's twists of hair flying and Brian Douglas's T-shirt flapping. After years of going to the beach with Bill Duggan and his three sons, Brian is comfortable at the wheel and Shanice knows how to pull a crab trap from the water.

"Want to go exploring?" Jesse Duggan, 22, asked as they neared an island.

"Yeah!" the teenagers said, clambering out onto the wet sand.

Every summer, the Duggans take dozens of neighborhood children to the Delaware shore, a generous impulse that in 13 years has become a tradition. The beach makes street-tough kids drop their defenses and act like children again, playing in the waves, reaching for a grown-up's hand.

Bill Duggan stays in touch with many of them after they're too old to go with the big, chaotic group. He and two of his sons took six teenage cousins to the shore recently for a couple of days of water-gun fights, body surfing, crabbing and occasionally a serious conversation. He said he hopes that, ultimately, what he's doing might make a difference.

"Does it? Who knows?" he said. "I don't have any illusions about changing anyone's world. You hope you reach one or two."

It happens all the time, in neighborhoods, in churches, in schools: Someone sees a problem and tries to help. Small-scale, backyard philanthropy has increased dramatically: The number of people working with neighbors on a community problem rose more than 30 percent, from about 15 million in 2007 to nearly 20 million last year, according to a study by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The recession might be driving the increase, making need obvious closer to home; or people might be more skeptical of the bureaucracy of big charities.

Bill Duggan, 57, grew up one of 17 children on a small farm in Upstate New York before his family moved to Southeast Washington when he was a kid. There's a picture of them all piled on the back of a pickup truck that "looks like something from 'The Grapes of Wrath,' " he said.

"We were poor. I remember every nice thing that anyone ever did for me."

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For Duggan, the owner of the blues bar Madam's Organ, a busy, noisy crowd feels like home. He has a big personality, with a temper, a funny story for everything, an exhausting work ethic and an edge to his generosity -- he doesn't hesitate to tell a kid off for challenging a rule.

Back in 1997, he saw some kids playing on hot asphalt littered with broken glass in Adams Morgan while his sons spent the summer by the ocean. He invited a bunch of them to his vacation home near Dewey Beach, with its three houses and a pool.

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