A pregnant 15-year-old, a refugee from El Salvador, sat in the basement quarters of The Family Place telling program director Joseph Citro her life story. It was a history of abandonment, neglect, poverty and physical and sexual abuse.
She is an example of the 20 to 30 persons who drop in at the Adams-Morgan center each day for help with housing, medical care, food or emotional support. Most are single mothers from Central America with less than six years of schooling; many are refugees from El Salvador.
"These people really don't have anywhere else to go," Citro said. "Some of them have been living in cars or on the street and don't have any friends or family to turn to. And many aren't eligible for the city's social services or emergency housing."
The Family Place is a nonprofit community center for parents and their unborn or newborn children that is dependent upon donations. It opened two years ago with the aim of helping lower the city's infant mortality rate and offering single mothers and dislocated families help, friendship and belonging.
Housed in the basement apartment of a four-story residential co-op at 1848 Columbia Rd. NW, the center has a playroom and a laundry room available on a drop-in basis during the day. It also offers scheduled social events and discussion groups.
"We're not just offering care; we're offering people who care," Citro said. "We offer a whole family of friends, a group of people who really care about one another."
The center initially was intended to provide services to only 50 families, but enrollment has swelled to more than 300 in the first two years, largely because the center has bilingual workers and is in the heavily Hispanic area of Adams-Morgan, Citro said.
The caseload continues to grow with city agencies referring clients, as they learn that the center specializes in the care of refugee families, particularly Salvadorans, he said.
To help meet its $118,000 annual budget, all of which is donated by private foundations and individuals, the center was to hold a $50-a-person fund-raising champagne breakfast this morning at the Capital Hilton Hotel. U.S. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole was among the scheduled speakers.
Citro, 34, was a social worker in the black and Hispanic communities of Paterson, N.J., for 14 years before he moved to the District and helped start The Family Place.
He and his staff of two full-time social workers, an occupational therapist and two assistants leased the space, painted bright pictures on the walls, installed used carpets and built small counseling offices.
After $20,000 in renovations, the apartment has the atmosphere of a communal home, with four small tables in the dining room, a large playroom and a bedroom where children can nap.
"Women from El Salvador have a particular problem because they aren't considered refugees and can't get the services available to everybody else," said Teresa Rosa, a center social worker who immigrated from El Salvador.
Recently, a half-dozen mothers from El Salvador, Peru, Cuba and Colombia gathered to share a lunch prepared and served by one of the program's participants, Maria Gallo, 26, from El Salvador.
Gallo's 5-year-old son has severe psychomotor retardation and is not expected to develop beyond the mental level of an infant. She said he was taken from her two years ago when city workers decided she was not caring for him properly.
But Family Place staff members discovered she had been given medical instructions in writing even though she is illiterate. They arranged for the instructions to be put on tape, and the child has been returned to her.
"I feel here as if I am in my own apartment," she said in Spanish through an interpreter after lunch. "I don't have many friends, so most of my friends I make here."