When Redskins legends Art Monk and Charles Mann first started negotiations to lease the abandoned Carver Theater in Anacostia, it had a half a roof, pockets of asbestos and no running water or electricity. It had been vacant for nearly two decades.
But they had a vision of what the brick building with peeling paint could become: home to the Good Samaritan Foundation's Training and Outreach Center. Along with fellow NFL greats Earnest Byner and Tim Johnson, Monk and Mann had founded the nonprofit organization to work with troubled youth. They encountered problems, though, not the least of which was finding a facility large enough to house its after-school program.
In March, nearly seven years later, their vision was realized. The District sold the building at 2405 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE to the Good Samaritan Foundation for $235,000. When renovations are complete, the building will do more than provide a training center for disadvantaged youth in the community; it will turn another stone in the city's effort to improve a prominent strip along Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE.
"It's a way of helping to revitalize that area," Monk said. "We want to do something that is top quality, state of the art, and that young people can walk into and feel they are getting something new, not used. It's a way of showing them we love them."
The Good Samaritan Foundation was founded 12 years ago to help prepare underprivileged District teenagers for the workforce. While the connections Monk and the others had in the business community helped secure summer jobs, it soon became obvious that the students needed much more. Many couldn't accept the jobs because they had to attend summer school or didn't have the skills necessary to do the work.
The Student Training Opportunity Program, which the foundation had formed to help teenagers land summer jobs, was enhanced to assist students with their academics throughout the school year.
But the foundation didn't have a place to locate its fledgling training center. A temporary home was found at the Garden Memorial Presbyterian Church on Minnesota Avenue SE. The students used the church for three years, until its offices were robbed of computers. Then they moved to the IDEA Public Charter High School in Northeast Washington in 2003.
In the meantime, the efforts to secure a permanent home were continuing. That's how District officials became involved. As in many cases where the public and the government work together toward a common goal, the process was not always smooth, the organization's officials say.
It was 1998 when the city first suggested that the group consider the Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue building, a former theater that once housed the Smithsonian's Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. But movement was slow, there was a change in mayoral administrations, and it was not until July 2001 that the organization signed a 20-year lease with the city. The rent: $1,300 a month for a two-story abandoned building that was not fit for occupation.
Despite the conditions, Mercer said, the deal actually was a good one for the organization, because properties in many of the District's depressed areas now carry heftier price tags than they did four years ago.
"We did it because a lot of people started to want this property," Mercer said. "We were afraid we were going to lose it." Now the Good Samaritan Foundation is the owner of the building, in a once-forgotten area that is beginning to appreciate.
There are visible signs of change near the property, situated between a Pepco substation and a carryout restaurant and just two blocks from the Big Chair, an Anacostia landmark. Office buildings and storefronts have spruced up the commercial strip at the foot of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. A few doors down from the training center, on the corner of Howard Street SE, the old Nicholas Avenue Elementary School will reopen as Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter school now under reconstruction.
The training center will have skylights, a restored lobby, classrooms and computers.
"We love the idea of having that building and turning it into our training facility," Monk said. "It's something we have had our eyes on several years and jumped through several hoops to get."
Among the last hoops was the effort to win Board of Zoning Adjustment variances this spring. A controversial one concerned the organization's desire to eliminate a requirement for 30 parking spaces.
The group argued that it could use spaces at Savoy Elementary School, which sits behind the center. They said the students to be served by the center don't have cars. Part of the attraction to this spot was its proximity to the Anacostia Metro station, a block away.
Mary Cuthbert, a Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commissioner, said she supports the building's rehabilitation but adamantly opposes dropping the parking requirement. She predicted that cars would park in front of the center and create congestion. But Anne Evans, principal of Savoy, wrote a letter confirming that the school's spaces would be available, and the parking variance was approved.
Cuthbert remains worried. "When the rubber hits the road, they're going to wish they have secured some parking," she said. "My concern is safety."
Now that the city hurdles are crossed, the group's leaders said they are eager to focus on serving the community's youth.
Census data show that the neighborhoods near the Good Samaritan Foundation, east of the Anacostia River in Ward 8, are ripe for the program's services. At least 67 percent of the children come from single-parent homes and nearly half of them live in poverty. The average family income is $35,228, according to 2000 statistics. Of the 37 students participating in the program now, 87 percent come from single-parent homes, according to the foundation.
Tracy Brower, the program director, said the students are recruited in the ninth grade and attend until they graduate from high school. "We're looking for students who want to improve their lives, their grades and their behavior," said Brower, who has worked with the program for five years. "They're students who are at risk, and we're helping them become leaders in the community and the workplace."
Eighty percent of the participants in the training program graduate and have gone to universities including Stanford, Villanova and Rutgers and Spelman College and Morehouse College. In 2003, 18 of the 22 graduating participants went to college. Two others went to vocational school and two enlisted in the military. This fall, the president of the foundation's youth council, Koyan Jackson, received a $2,500 scholarship from Comcast Corp. A top student in her graduating class at Anacostia Senior High School, she will attend Tuskegee University.
She is one of 37 students from Anacostia and IDEA who attend the after-school mentoring program, which has attracted as many as 65 at one time.
Devon Lloyd, 15, said the program changed his life. He said his mother coaxed him into participating by threatening not to buy him a cell phone.
Devon, then a high school freshman, had failed four classes, although in the eighth grade he had been an honor student. Once he got to high school, Devon said, he started "playing around and not paying attention in class."
Under the watchful eye of the program's coordinators, Devon's grades have taken a dramatic upward turn. Now his report card has mostly B's and C's.
"After they saw my report card, I knew I had to work harder," he said. "I knew I could do it. I just wasn't doing it."
One incentive to excel in school is the promise of a coveted summer job. Last year, Devon worked as a counselor-in-training at a YMCA.
Monk said he hopes to raise more money to expand the program to other wards. The group's $800,000 budget is funded by corporate contributions and government grants.
"Obviously if you can do it in one community, you can do it in other communities," Monk said. "The whole idea for working with inner-city youth is providing them with opportunities that they would not necessarily have that their suburban counterparts have in abundance."