A banner hanging near a discount store on Benning Road SE caught the eye of Jacqueline Brown, 47, as she ran an errand Friday night. The suspended advertisement for the "Bet You Didn't Know" community fair promised prizes and information about free health and social services programs.
"I wanted to come out and see it," Brown said yesterday, before she stopped at a D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation table. Brown has arthritis and wanted to inquire about the stack of blue fliers promoting water aerobics classes.
More than 200 curious residents came from the neighborhood and beyond to attend yesterday's fair, held at the Benning Terrace public housing complex and organized by the Department of Human Services. More than 25 government agencies, community and faith-based groups were represented. Participants received free dental screenings and collected a wide range of information, from how to become a foster parent to how to obtain suggested reading lists from the local library.
The city welfare agency runs social programs that offer a variety of public benefits, but it organized the four community fairs that began last month to reach people who otherwise might not receive help.
"I think it's about time that government came out to you," Human Services Director Yvonne Gilchrist told the crowd. "We're going to bring our business to you to serve you better."
At Benning Terrace, gang violence has abated since 1997, when a 12-year-old boy was abducted and killed. But in July, a 21-year-old man was killed, allegedly by a youth driving a stolen van. Last year, police say, young people were driving stolen cars involved in crashes that claimed two lives.
"There's a great need here, but people are kind of slow about getting out and getting information," said Ellen Mundaray, who went with volunteers last week to distribute 1,000 fair fliers. She blamed the apathy on low self-esteem, in some cases related to the neighborhood's social problems. She said the promise of a hot lunch could increase the turnout.
"Just as long as you are giving them something, then you have their full attention," Mundaray said.
Police blocked off 46th Place SE, a cul-de-sac, and children and adults moved from table to table under white plastic tents to the sounds of gospel and R&B music.
To ensure that people listened to the information presenters provided at each table, they received a card that had to be filled with six stickers to receive the free lunch, a hot dog or hamburger.
Mable Gassaway, 57, had five stickers by the time she arrived at the Department of Public Works table.
Gassaway, who lives on Capitol Hill, was relieved to find someone to listen to her complaints about garbage in an alley.
"It's directly across the street from my house, and people come from outside of the neighborhood to dump all kinds of trash," Gassaway told inspector Jacqueline Brooks.
Brooks took down the address and pledged that she would pass it along to the inspector who covers that area.
Eric Greene, 38, of Anacostia pored over brochures at the D.C. Public Library table.
Langston Community Library Manager Vanessa Beer watched him. "Do you have children?" she asked.
"Yes, I have one son."
"What grade is he in?"
"He's in the 10th grade."
Beer handed Greene suggested reading lists for grades 10 to 12.
Greene later said the information was critical. "They should keep it going; it shouldn't just be a one-time event," he said.
The first fair, held in Edgewood Terrace, at Fourth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE, drew about 800 people in August.
The final two fairs, including one with a multicultural focus, are scheduled for next month.