CaShawn Thompson, an assistant teacher at Bright Beginnings, started volunteering at the preschool 20 years ago. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

CaShawn Thompson is an assistant teacher of 2-year-olds at a preschool in Southeast Washington called Bright Beginnings. When we met, I asked her: What do you and your fellow teachers hope to accomplish with your students?

“I know you expect us to say we want them to know how to count and know their colors, shapes and ABCs,” Thompson began. “My thing is, I don’t know any adults that don’t know their colors and don’t know their shapes, their ABCs and 123s. I know a lot of adults who don’t have critical thinking skills. I know a lot of adults who can’t socialize well. I know a lot of adults who don’t know how to take turns. I know a lot of adults who can’t verbally express their wants and needs. I know a lot of adults who don’t have anyone to celebrate their accomplishments, and I know a lot of adults who don’t stand up for themselves.

“That’s what I teach the 2-year-olds. I think that’s important for them to know as they move away from us and into the bigger world.”

Wow, I thought. Wow.

The nonprofit Bright Beginnings — a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand — serves District families that are experiencing homelessness. The school was founded in 1990 by the Junior League of Washington. Its first home was in the basement of the historic Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in the Shaw neighborhood. It then moved to the Perry School Community Center on New York Avenue and M Street NW. In the summer, it moved to a bright and cheery new building on Fourth Street SE, across from Ballou High School.

“People get the wrong idea of what homelessness looks like,” Thompson said. “Too many people still have that idea that it’s some drug-addled guy with a lot of bags or the lady pushing a shopping cart with everything she owns. While that is still true, the true face of homelessness is families — and, bigger than that, children.”

Thompson, 45, knows what she’s talking about. Twenty years ago — pregnant and with a 4-year-old daughter — she packed a suitcase and left an abusive relationship. She had arranged to stay in a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. During the two months she lived there with her daughter, Thompson heard from a social worker about a Head Start program for families who didn’t have a home.

“I said, ‘Well, that’s us,’ ” Thompson said. The program was Bright Beginnings, where Thompson enrolled her daughter, Taahira .

Her son, Isaiah, went there, too.

“He was actually the first baby to go all the way through the program, from very young infant to kindergarten,” Thompson said. (Isaiah, 20, is a student. Taahira, 24, graduated magna cum laude from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and works for a D.C. charity called For Love of Children.)

Bright Beginnings is about more than kids. It’s about parents, too. From the very start, Thompson volunteered in her children’s classrooms. She enrolled in a Bright Beginnings workforce development program where she learned about early-childhood education. She received her child development associate certification and was employed at Bright Beginnings until 2003.

After working at other schools, Thompson returned to Bright Beginnings in the summer, just in time to help the charity move.

“The program has expanded so much in 15 years,” she said.

The need is still there.

Homelessness “is not always sleeping on the street,” Thompson said. “Homelessness is not having stability. It’s not having any kind of hope. It’s just grinding every day to make sure you have a place for you and the baby to lie down at night.”

Thompson’s experiences have given her empathy for her students and their parents. She knows homelessness is traumatic, that poverty is traumatic. She wants her classroom to be “the stable space for the children while everything around them is chaotic and in flux.”

At Bright Beginnings, Thompson said, kids “can count on their routine and their stability. They can be hugged and loved and spoken to with kind words.”

It’s all any of us would want for our 2-year-olds, and it’s that kind environment in which children can learn.

You can help

Bright Beginnings supports a two-generation approach to alleviating homelessness and poverty: It provides preschool and day care for children, while also offering programs for parents. You can support this important work. Just visit posthelpinghand.com and click “Donate.” To contribute by mail, make a check payable to Bright Beginnings and send it to: Bright Beginnings, Attn: Helping Hand, 3418 Fourth St. SE, Washington, DC 20032.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.