Veronica Parke could see it in her mind: a bustling center on 14th Street NW, where poor women would get down on the carpet and read to their children and play with them, building imaginary palaces with blocks and Legos.
She would lure the mothers with free laundry tokens to plunk in shiny new metal washers and dryers--a major incentive in a part of town where few have washing machines in their homes and many must scramble to save the quarters required at the neighborhood's sole Laundromat.
Parke, president of Martha's Table, managed to build the center. With help from a grant from Nissan North America Inc., she renovated an old storage space next to the nonprofit center's soup kitchen.
Where there had been a hole in the roof, she put a skylight. Along one wall, she installed about a dozen industrial-size washers and dryers. On the other side of the room, she put carpets and couches, small tables and shelves filled with books and puzzles and blocks and all manner of toys intended to help develop young minds.
The Laundry and Learning Center opened a year ago, and more than 140 loads of laundry tumble through the center's machines each week. The dream of women teaching their children in that idle time between loading and folding, however, has not come to fruition as fully as Parke had hoped.
"It's a slow process, I must say," Parke said. "In the beginning, especially, the women much preferred to talk to each other. To communicate and interact with children is a learned process. Apparently, it's going to take some time."
Parke is trying now to teach by example. Volunteers and staff members come by and get down on the floor with the children. They read to them, and hope the mothers notice how engaged and enthusiastic the children are about the printed word.
They might mention casually that the structures the children put together represent more than fun and games: They are building pre-math skills and expanding their imaginations.
"It's very informal," Parke said. "If it was formal, say a lecture, I don't think they'd come. I don't know where preaching works, but it definitely doesn't work here."
So Parke provides the materials, the atmosphere, the example. Transforming attitudes and lives takes patience, and she has it. She takes satisfaction when she sees mothers engage with their children, and she doesn't focus on the times they don't. She is thrilled when children ask to take home one of the books donated by individuals and companies.
"Children will say with such pride: 'I have five books at home,' or 'I have a library at home with 10 books,' " she said. Books and art supplies are prominent on the "wish list" she hands out to volunteers who may be enticed to donate.
She has noticed mothers picking up the magazines that are scattered about and reading brochures about the importance of immunizing their children. Articles cut from newspapers are taped next to maps of the world. Twice a week, volunteer nurses come to the center to discuss health concerns and offer advice on where to seek care.
"It's like our soup," Parke said. "You throw in a lot of nutritious ingredients, and mix it up, and hope it turns out well."
Soup remains a central part of the mission of Martha's Table, which was originally formed to take donated food and turn it into meals for the homeless. But the center has expanded, literally and figuratively. It now takes up nearly a full block on 14th Street near V Street.
In the middle section of the building, huge metal cauldrons bubble each day with at least 65 gallons of soup made from scratch. Volunteers slap together 3,000 sandwiches, which are loaded onto vans that fan out for deliveries to people who live in parks and doorways.
But on either side of the soup kitchen, and on the floors above it, staff members are working to prevent homelessness: They are nurturing the children whose poverty puts them at high risk for the kinds of failures that can lead to lost lives. The center runs a day-care, preschool and after-school program.
The center gets involved when the children are toddlers. And at 3:15 p.m., when their brothers and sisters get out of school, every square inch of space is filled with children who arrive to find a healthy snack, tutors to help them with their homework and mentors who can chat and play.
The laundry center is one of the spaces that is converted into an after-school program each afternoon. The metal tables for folding clothes are pushed back, and smaller tables with chairs fill the room. The children can stay until 7 p.m. and have a warm meal before heading home.
The service to the children aids the outreach to parents, which in turn reinforces what the center is trying to accomplish with the children.
"We are trying," Parke said, "to end the need to feed people on the street. We are trying to make things better."
CAPTION: Taking advantage of the free laundry and developmental toys at Martha's Table are Kimberly Vereen, 3, left, Janet Vereen, Marvell Johnson and Ebony Johnson, 4.
CAPTION: Children check the photographs on the Honor Roll Tree at the Laundry and Learning Center.