The Columbia Road Children's Center took the name of its late and well-loved former director Barbara Chambers in weekend ceremonies marked by singing, testimonials and tears.
Nearly a hundred current and former students, parents and teachers socialized over punch and attended workshops on child care but mostly reminisced about Chambers, the 40-year-old Jewish woman who molded and symbolized the multicultural, multiracial center that accepts mentally and physically disabled children, a rarity among day-care operations.
The day-care center, in the basement of the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Adams-Morgan, was renamed the Barbara Chambers Children's Center in honor of its former director, who died last year after a four-year battle with cancer.
"It's a place where a lot of different kinds of people come together," said Kathy Owen, a kindergarten teacher at the school for 3- to 5-year-old preschoolers.
The children's center, at 1470 Irving St. NW, was started in 1968 in the aftermath of the riots sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The school's founding principle was that bringing together children of different ethnic and economic backgrounds would lead to trust and greater understanding between people.
Chambers, who lived with her family in Adams-Morgan, was one of the founding parents. She enrolled her son in the center.
A medium-sized woman with salt-and-pepper hair, Chambers was an untiring worker and committed to the center's success, her friends recalled.
Even after Chambers had left the school because of her illness, Paulette Saunders, the current director, recalled she could meet with the former director and receive enough inspiration to continue searching for funds to stave off the center's recurring financial crises. "You came away with the feeling 'God, this woman is so strong.' "
The center's financial fragility remains, but the school recently received a $16,000 grant from the Maddux Foundation to hire staff and reopen its special classroom for handicapped children that has been closed for six months.
The school reflects its surrounding diverse neighborhood--one-third of the children in the school are white, one-third are black and one-third Hispanic. Half the currently enrolled 60 students have their tuition paid by the D.C. Department of Human Services, while a sliding scale fee enables others to pay based on their parents' income.
"Everybody stays here . . . because it's family," said Judy Fisher, a former teacher, who said the mix of people in the school make Columbia Road Children's Center special. "I wouldn't normally come into contact with Latinos and white folks."
Julia Gales credits the school with encouraging her 4-year-old son to speak her native tongue, Spanish.
"He didn't want to speak it when he came," she said, but now he speaks it fluently.
"Bobbie had that ability that so few of us have, of transforming our value system into something real," said Irving Friedman, Chambers' father. " . . . what Bobbie did here was not something we taught her. . . . We never told her she ought to be concerned with people of all backgrounds. In this school, Bobbie is fulfilling herself."