State dinner includes leaders of Mary's Center, Miriam's Kitchen, Martha's Table

By Robin Givhan
Thursday, May 20, 2010

More than 72 hours before Maria Gomez was to sit down at her first White House state dinner, days before she'd found the teal evening gown she'd wear, her engraved invitation to Wednesday's gala in honor of Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his wife, Margarita Zavala, was already framed and hanging on the wall outside her office at Mary's Center for Maternal and Child Care.

The invitation had a place of honor in the same narrow corridor as the autographed photos of first lady Michelle Obama posing with the staff of the Adams Morgan community health clinic Gomez founded 22 years ago. Obama visited the center only a few weeks after moving into the White House. And the reason Gomez received Washington's most coveted invitation was directly related to that February day.

When the Obamas compiled the guest list for their second state dinner, tucked among the usual suspects of political heavies, business bigwigs and Hollywood glitterati were three people unaccustomed to limelight and red carpets: Gomez, Lindsey Buss and Scott Schenkelberg. Each runs a D.C. nonprofit organization visited by the first lady. They are her "special guests."

How about that?

"I'm thinking, 'Oh, my God!' " exclaimed Gomez, more prone to giving hugs than handshakes. "My first thought was, 'Oh, my gray hair!' Am I going to get it dyed? But I am who I am."

Gomez, who was born in Colombia, created Mary's Center to provide health care and social services to women, most of them immigrants -- many of them single mothers from rapes that occurred during illicit border crossings. The center has since expanded to support men and teenagers, as well.

Buss is the president of Martha's Table. The 14th Street NW outreach program offers day care, after-school activities and meals to those in need. And Schenkelberg works as the executive director of Miriam's Kitchen. Located in the shadow of George Washington University, Miriam's Kitchen serves breakfast and dinner to the chronically homeless.

Obama spent time at each of these community groups early in her tenure as first lady, as she was getting to know the city. The first family served Thanksgiving dinner to the clients at Martha's Table. Miriam's Kitchen has been the recipient of produce from the famed White House garden. And at Mary's Center, the first lady got down on the floor to read with the children and fielded questions from teenagers, including one on immigration reform.

"She's really concentrated on Anacostia, on east of the river, and on this area right here," Gomez says. "I thought because of the immigration issue, she would stay away from an agency where it's such a hot-button issue."

Although some of these folks have been to the White House before, offering their expertise on health care or childhood obesity, for instance, they are not part of boldface Washington. They work in the "other" Washington, the city that does not transform every four years, the one that struggles with poverty and HIV, the one in which politics is an obstacle course to survive rather than a game to be won.

Buss, 42, Gomez, 55, and Schenkelberg, 38, are a relentlessly optimistic trio, forever expressing thanks and admiration for their volunteers and their donors. They are experts at inspiration. But they are always thinking -- knowing -- they could do more. Gomez leads a tour through the bright purple central building and the neighboring outpost that serve as the heart of Mary's Center, and she is in a state of constant apology because the rooms have not been remodeled, because there isn't enough seating for all the clients. A new center will open soon on Georgia Avenue, she says. But the walls here are cheerful shades of yellow and pink; the floor is a patchwork of Crayola-colored tiles; and no one seems especially perturbed, impatient or aggravated. But yes, things can always be better.

Over the past year and a half, the relationship between the White House and these groups has been quietly nurtured -- out of sight of cameras and without benefit of press releases. The children who attend the various after-school programs have received special invitations to the Easter Egg Roll and tours of the Christmas decorations. Three teenagers from Mary's Center were even invited to the first State of the Union address, complete with a motorcade ride from the White House to the Capitol.

"It really showed them that anybody can" achieve, Gomez says. "For a lot of the kids, they'd say the closest we get to something like this is when my mother is working in the kitchen and the famous people come through."

Anchoring a changing neighborhood

Buss used to work in the corridors of power. Born in Chicago, he came to Washington 17 years ago as a lawyer in private practice. Seven years later, he returned to his family's roots in community service. In the 10 years he has been at Martha's Table, he has watched the neighborhood transform from one dominated by auto repair shops into a gentrified community anchored by Whole Foods and lined with businesses that sell fanciful kitchen gadgets and flights of wine. He's proud that Martha's Table, founded in 1980, has remained.

"One of the things that's so difficult is that as the community is going through gentrification, the support network for people gets stripped away one layer at a time," Buss says. "And as new neighbors move in with more money, they're taking the opportunity to volunteer."

The buildings that house Martha's Table are some of those old body shops. They've been transformed with artwork by teenagers and by intimate photographs of the toddlers taken by volunteers. One of the playrooms, this one for 5-to-8-year-olds, is a kaleidoscope of bright yellow ductwork, knee-high tables and miniature plastic chairs in shades of red and blue.

During Buss's tour of the complex, he provides a running commentary on the food service vans that deliver meals 365 days a year, the dedication of 10,000 volunteers and the jolt of energy that went through the place when the first lady's visit set off a surge in donations.

Martha's Table has been trying to follow the tenets of the first lady's healthful-eating campaign. A vegetable garden -- established with the assistance of White House chef Sam Kass, foodie legend Alice Waters and local farmer's markets -- abuts the playground. The kitchen staff tries to prepare food from scratch rather than rely on processed goods.

Buss, with short-clipped salt-and-pepper hair, looks like the lawyer he once was, but on casual Friday. When he enters a day-care room filled with 1-year-olds, he sets off a round of jumping and squealing that might ordinarily be reserved for a new squeaky toy. He crouches down and hands out hugs, and one little boy named Richard, whose grandmother practically accosted Buss on the street to get the toddler into the program, just doesn't want to let go of Buss's leg.

A White House commitment

Schenkelberg is closing in on his eighth anniversary at Miriam's Kitchen. Housed in the basement of Western Presbyterian Church, it has the look of a typical fellowship hall with folding metal chairs and round tables. But the walls have been jazzed up with paintings from in-house art therapy and poems from writing workshops. During meals, fresh flowers in bud vases decorate each table.

Of the three organizations, Miriam's Kitchen has probably received the most attention because of the gifts of fresh produce from the White House garden. Measured as a percentage, the donations make up a tiny portion of the food the staff prepares every day. Cooks serve about 200 people breakfast, and 100 receive dinner. The symbolism, however, is immeasurable. The vegetables inspired others to make donations. And that has helped Miriam's Kitchen stick to its pledge of preparing meals from fresh ingredients. A recent Tuesday breakfast menu included crepes with sweet ricotta filling and freshly made strawberry sauce; scrambled eggs with scallion, cream cheese and salmon; stone-ground grits; bagels; and fruit.

Miriam's Kitchen offers support to those most likely to face the unkind glances of strangers. Volunteers are not focused on nurturing sweet-faced children or teenagers so obviously full of potential. Their clientele is almost exclusively single adults -- men and women who sleep on the streets or crowd emergency shelters. But the first lady and volunteers from the White House have been consistent in their support.

"They've had numerous volunteer activities across the last year," says Schenkelberg. "This is their home. Their city. They've helped in a way I've not seen in a long time."

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