Every evening between 6 and 7, Leola Bynum strolls the grounds of Kelly Miller Apartments, one of the city's public housing projects.
Along the way she speaks to friends, answers questions about when the exterminator is coming, and tells children when a bus is leaving for a family trip. While she talks, her eyes scan the area. She never forgets that the purpose of her evening walk is to check for potential problems -- overflowing dumpsters, broken windows or loiterers.
For two years, Bynum has been property manager of the Kelly Miller-LeDroit Apartments in Northwest Washington. For 24 years, she has been a resident of Kelly Miller. Bynum is the only Department of Housing and Community Development manager who both lives at and manages a family housing property.
Kelly Miller is one of the oldest of the District's 52 public housing projects, which house about 20 percent of the city's population. But, while other projects with families have little grass, broken mailboxes and a generally disheveled appearance, Kelly Miller blossoms with flowers and is well maintained.
"There are 287 families here and I know them all by name because I live here," said Bynum, a big-eyed woman in her early 40s. "I never forget that I'm a resident first.
"I remember about 20 years ago I went to a meeting and a young man got up and . . . said things like, 'People in public housing don't want anything but handouts.' My blood was boiling, but I didn't say anything," she recalled. "Years passed and I got to know the man well. . . . We had a meeting at my house one day and I invited him.
"He was so embarrassed. He said, 'I didn't know you lived in public housing.' I told him that instead of telling him about people in public housing, I decided to show him that people in public housing want something. We eat, sleep and work to pay our rent just like everyone else."
Bynum earns a little more than $500 every two weeks for managing the 169-unit complex. Until the end of September she was earning much less than other property managers, said a housing department spokesman. She must also pay nearly $300 a month for her apartment.
Because she lives on the property, people knock on Bynum's front door long after her office is closed for the day. They come to tell her that an elderly neighbor needs food or that someone's child has a drug problem.
"When someone cries for help, she takes it upon herself to find help wherever it is," said John Vaughn, acting chief of the Comprehensive Youth Program, at the city's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services Administration. "She knows the people who have the services and they know her. She calls me over to do drug counseling. . . . "
"These people out here think she can do everything," said Kelly Miller resident Ethel Brown, standing beside pots of flowers on her front porch.
Some people have come to expect miracles from Bynum because she rarely fails to get them the services they need. She has arranged for teachers to tutor students and a counselor to offer sex education classes for children over 3 years of age to try to reduce the rate of teen-age pregnancies.
"The thing about her that is most impressive is the way she has included residents in helping her to do what she needs to do . . . " said James E. Clay, Director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, which owns the city's public housing.
"She is a real go-getter, doing the type of things I would like to see all of us do, namely recognizing that housing by itself doesn't address all of the problems," Clay said.
It is Bynum's belief "that when people know that they have a safe and sanitary place to live, they want to better their lives in other ways." Residents chip in to mow the grass, clean up yards or move heavy furniture for older neighbors. On Oct. 30, Bynum is having a special ceremony to honor residents who have been particularly helpful.
It was her needs as a resident that prompted her to become a community organizer. She is active in local Democratic politics, belonging to the Ward 1 party organization and working closely with the Democratic State Committee.
"When I first moved here, I had four daughters," said Bynum, who is in her early forties and has six daughters, ranging from 12 to 29 years old. "I was concerned about having activities for the children, so I sent a letter to housing and they gave us a community center. I started working there, keeping activities going for the children."
Eighteen years ago she organized her first family bus trip, and today the trips continue. Now, the elderly residents of the nearby LeDroit Senior Citizens Building are included.
In addition to extra services, Bynum carries out regular duties such as collecting rent and issuing food stamps to the elderly. She meets monthly with the residents council to give an update on management activities.
Decorating the walls of the management office are snapshots from special community ceremonies and trips to Virginia Beach. At the entrance to the office is a poster stating "Our Neighborhood Code," about being a good neighbor.
In Bynum's small office, gospel music floats from a radio. On her wall are a number of certificates, including a commendation from the mayor to the Kelly Miller development "in recognition of neighborhood beautification efforts," and an award to Bynum from Howard University "for outstanding support as a member of the Community Relations Advisory Committee." There are a dozen or so pictures of Bynum with politicians.
Tacked on the wall beside her desk is Bynum's motto, a copy of a verse by scientist George Washington Carver that reads: "How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, impassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because some day in life you will have been all of these."