The flat roof sags and the red paint is chipping off the old brick building at Ontario Place and Ontario Road NW, but the worn-looking day-care center is the pride of Charlotte Filmore, 82, who founded it in an abandoned night club 13 years ago and still runs it.
With a staff of three, the Charlotte Filmore Early Learning Center provides two hot meals and 11 hours of supervised play and instruction weekdays for 25 Adams-Morgan 2- to 6-year-olds for $35 a week or less. Dwindling enrollment in recent years forced Filmore to reduce her staff and borrow money last year to make ends meet.
Filmore attributes her youthful appearance and vitality to the hectic workload at the center but said she no longer is strong enough to work full-time cooking and catering in private homes, as she did until last year to help fund the center.
Friends, neighbors and Ward 1 officials who know her plight have planned a benefit next Tuesday, proclaimed by Mayor Marion Barry as "Charlotte Filmore Day," to raise funds for the center. But planners say the fund-raiser will be more a tribute to Filmore herself, the contributions she has made to Adams-Morgan and the inspiration she provides young people.
Born in the farm country near Aquasco, Md., Filmore came here to visit cousins in Anacostia in 1918 and never left. "They warned me that once I'd see that beautiful Capitol I'd never leave," she said. Among other reasons she stayed, Filmore said, was the memory of her barefoot, former slave grandmother with tears streaming down her cheeks as she ironed and cooked for the wealthy to make a living. But she said she was equally inspired by the pride and dignity of her lifetime idol.
Her happiest childhood memories are of playing in the pine grove beside her family's log cabin and of caring for the neighbors' children, she said.
Later, in Washington, Filmore said, she was able to use the child-care skills she acquired at home to get jobs as a cook and nanny. She used those skills and a high school diploma to help raise her son and daughter after her two husbands died.
"I was always poor. Honey, I'm still poor," she said, chuckling. "But I always put good food on the table for my family, and I do the same at the school." Because her mother was illiterate, she said, "I thought no child should grow up only able to sign their name with an X."
Soon after moving to Adams-Morgan in the early '60s she teamed with her neighbor, Peter G. Mosher, to establish a tutoring program called the Alley Library, initially run out of her basement. For years her back yard was the gathering place for neighborhood teens.
She said her projects helped her recover from grief after her mother and son, Osie Johnson, a jazz musician, died within a month of each other in 1966.
In 1970, at age 70, Filmore said she decided to open a facility that would serve the younger children of the community. "I saw so much more hope in the young ones," she said, stroking the center's chipped exterior as if it were a child's cowlick.
"Her center isn't fancy, but it sure has served a lot of kids in the neighborhood," said Advisory Neighborhod Commission 1C commissioner Nancy Shia.
"They give me someone to fuss over," said Filmore. "They need me, and I need them to do what I like to do, to help myself and to be completely happy. And hopefully I make a richer life for them."