In 1990, after several years of planning and preparation, a preschool named Bright Beginnings opened in its first home, the basement of a YWCA in Shaw. From the start, Bright Beginnings was designed to give homeless children — whose parents went from couch to car, from shelter to shelter — a quality early education.
It gave them something else, too.
“I’ll never forget being told that the little cubby that each student had in the preschool was, for many of them, the only space they had in their lives that they could call their own,” said Martie Kendrick Kettmer, a D.C. lawyer who serves on the board of the Junior League of Washington, the organization that founded Bright Beginnings and supports it to this day.
Over its nearly 30 years of existence, Bright Beginnings has often found itself on the move, relocating five times. Most recently, it was in the Perry School, a historic (and rather tired) building at First and M streets NW.
And then, on July 27, Bright Beginnings got a little cubby of its own: The ribbon was cut on an airy, light-filled building on Fourth Street SE, across the playing field from Ballou High School. It’s a brand-new, custom-designed, stand-alone space.
“We really wanted to create something that, as a building, is as nice as any child-care center or preschool in our area,” Kettmer said.
The new Bright Beginnings’ Fourth Street campus has space for 118 children, ages 0 to 3. (Older kids — the pre-K 3s and 4s — are in a space Bright Beginnings leases five blocks away on Martin Luther King Avenue SE.) Clients are drawn from families experiencing homelessness in Washington.
My visits always seem to coincide with nap time, when the little ones are snoozing on their little cots. Of course, that allows me to admire the blond-wood furniture and the colorful walls, painted in pastel shades of blue, green and yellow.
There are new playgrounds, too, in both locations. The one on MLK Avenue was built by Kaboom, with a donation from Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation. Those on Fourth Street were built with financial support from Exelon and from donors who gave in honor of Betty Jo Gaines , the longtime executive director of Bright Beginnings who died in 2016.
All of this would have been hard to imagine in the late 1980s, when the Junior League of Washington began contemplating the creation of a signature project. Members interviewed area civic, business and philanthropic leaders to see where the need was greatest.
“What haunted a number of us was the specter of every morning at 8 o’clock mothers and infants being, in effect, evicted from the homeless shelters and forced to walk the streets of Washington, regardless of extreme cold, rain or high temperatures,” Kettmer said. “There basically was no place for them to go.
“We thought, ‘Let’s do something that addresses one of the most horrific unmet needs in the community.’ That’s what Bright Beginnings became.”
Junior League leaders competed for and won a $200,000 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services. It was intended to be spent over a two-year period. The Junior League stretched the money to three years then vowed to make Bright Beginnings permanent — and make it more than just a place for kids.
“One of the core staffing priorities was social worker support for families, because of the challenges they were facing,” Kettmer said.
Bright Beginnings created parent education programs and reached out to other organizations so its clients could benefit from GED and job training opportunities.
The handsome new building cost $10.5 million. The board was able to get a New Markets tax credit that allowed them to save $800,000. The charity is in the middle of a capital campaign to raise $3.8 million to finish paying the building off and ensure its upkeep.
As Kettmer looks back on all the accomplishments, she’s struck by how far Bright Beginnings has come — and how closely it has hewed to the original goal.
“I think honestly the motivation was: Why shouldn’t the poorest and most vulnerable among us have access to the same high-quality child development and child-care services that our children had?” she said.
A lot of people have helped make Bright Beginnings a success. Said Kettmer: “The Junior League of Washington believes that when you put resources and volunteers together, that is the way you maximize community impact.”
Here’s another way to maximize impact: Add your Bright Beginnings donation to those of other readers who are participating in The Washington Post Helping Hand. That’s our annual fundraising drive.
You can contribute by visiting posthelpinghand.com and clicking “Donate.” To give 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.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.