When times were tough, longtime Washingtonian could count on Children's

As a child, Calvin Bell was familiar with Children's Hospital as the place he and his family could go for medical care even when they couldn't pay for it.
As a child, Calvin Bell was familiar with Children's Hospital as the place he and his family could go for medical care even when they couldn't pay for it. (John Kelly)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 3:13 PM

Calvin Bell thinks back to what it was like to be on welfare in Washington 60 years ago.

"Back then there was a requirement that you come down and get in this line once a month where you picked up powdered eggs, powdered milk and a block of cheese about this big," he says, holding his hands shoebox-size apart. "You signed your name and they would send you your check. If you didn't do that, if you were too good to go stand in line, you didn't get it.

"Back then there was something called the 'man in the house' rule, which meant that if they found a man in your house, and you were a woman on welfare, they cut you off.

"You couldn't have a telephone, you couldn't have a television and you couldn't have insurance. You had those things, you were living in the lap of luxury."

Somehow, Calvin's mother, Bernice, made it work. The family, which included Calvin's baby sister, Lavern, moved often. Most of his childhood was spent in walkups near Seventh and N streets NW. "We moved four times and never left the block," he says.

Calvin's mom would wait until the day before Christmas to buy a tree, when the price would be knocked down from $1 to 50 cents, although one year even that was too much. Instead, his mother asked at the liquor store if she could have the cardboard cutout of Santa Claus that was advertising Coca-Cola.

"She said, 'Calvin, things are a little tough this Christmas. I don't think we're going to be able to afford anything.' I said, 'Mom, I'm all right. Get something for my sister.' Mom said, 'If we had some money, what would you want?'"

Calvin knew. In the window of the corner drugstore was a little toy toolbox for $2. "I said, 'If we were rich, I'd like that toolbox.' "

On Christmas morning he woke up to his sister squealing about her new doll. And under the cardboard Santa: the toolbox.

When Calvin or Lavern got sick, his mother took them to Children's Hospital, which was then at 13th and V streets NW. "There weren't a whole lot of alternatives," Calvin says. "Children's was the place you could take your kid whether you had money or not. Their policy was: 'We'll take care of the children. If you can pay, fine. If you can't, we'll work it out.' "

Children's treated the bumps and bruises of Calvin's childhood. Doctors there took out his sister's tonsils. ("I always was jealous of her. They gave her ice cream and Popsicles.") When he was 6 or 7, Calvin was playing with a balloon when it disappeared. "I thought it went up my nose. My mother hauled me up to Children's Hospital and they brought in the ear, nose and throat doctor and he said, 'There's nothing wrong.' I thought my mother would kill me after that."

Calvin graduated from Cardozo, joined the Air Force, learned data processing, went to work for the Internal Revenue Service, became a manager, married Claudia Lee and had a son named Carlos. When Carlos developed asthma, they'd take him to Children's, except now Calvin had a job, he had insurance, he was able to pay.

"I'm thoroughly indebted to Children's, so when it came time that I could try to pay some of it back, I said, 'Well, why not,' " says Calvin, who's 66, retired and lives in Dunkirk, Md. "We're in the midst of one of the worst recessions, but if everyone in Washington was to give $100, it would help the cause."

And what is that cause? To raise money for the uncompensated care fund at Children's Hospital. This money is used to make up the shortfall between what government insurance pays for treatment and what it costs Children's to provide that treatment. It amounts to some $58 million a year.

To make your tax-deductible donation, send a check or money order (payable to "Children's Hospital") to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To donate with a credit card, go online to www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital or call 301-565-8501.

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