The children at the D.C. General shelter call him “Master Dong.” He shows up six days a week bearing fresh fruit and something even rarer and more precious at this overcrowded facility for homeless families: organized, outside fun.
Dong Kim arrived at the shelter on a recent afternoon wearing a white robe, black belt and headband to lead his unusual program, a quirky mix of gardening, meditation and martial arts.
With watermelon and strawberries peeking out of a cooler, Kim promised his students a tasty bite — but they’d have to earn it by being good participants.
“Let’s do flowers,” Kim said to the group of youngsters and teenage volunteer helpers as he guided them in an exercise.
Kim leaned over, fingers pointing to the ground, and the kids mimicked him. He rose slowly and extended his fingers to the sky. The children did the same.
“Your body is your home,” Kim said. “Who do we thank for this body?”
On cue, the kids answered: “God!”
Kim said all of his activities include a spiritual undertone because he wants his students to have hope and appreciate what little they do have.
“The kids just flock to him,” said Tranceia Campbell, a mother of six whose family has been at the shelter since March. Campbell said she relies on Kim because when one of her sons misses the morning exercises, he’s more prone to acting out — sometimes violently.
Kim, 57, named his program “Home Do,” after the business he owns conducting martial arts lessons in churches, parks and other informal “studios” in Southeast Washington. He started volunteering his services for the homeless in 1997, after his mother came to visit him from his native South Korea and planted the idea for the program.
“She asked me how such a rich country could have so many people sleeping on the street,” Kim said. “She told me I should be working for them.”
“After she died of a stroke, I kept hearing her in my head,” he said.
He showed up at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter at Second and D streets in Northwest, asking how he could help.
“I’m a martial arts instructor, and they said, ‘You can teach them that,’ ” Kim said.
The lessons eventually included meditation and gardening, and he later expanded it to the shelter on the old D.C. General Hospital grounds. He funds the activities with profits earned from his business.
For Kim, the connection between martial arts, meditation and gardening is centered on caring for the body and improving well-being.
“The children very much need attention from all different directions,” Kim said. “I think about what we can do to help these kids and make the city more beautiful.”
He delivers his lessons on the helicopter pad in front of the shelter, located between the city jail and a clinic for treating sexually transmitted disease near the Stadium-Armory Metro station. The grass surrounding the helipad is home to the kids’ garden.
At first glance, the garden doesn’t look like much, with its broad patches of overturned soil. But that dirt is sprouting all sorts of fresh food the children don’t have access to indoors. Prepared meals are shipped in for the roughly 800 struggling families.
The garden is the only structured outdoor activity for the shelter’s children other than the monitored playground, which sometimes is closed when there’s not an attendant.
Indoors, the kids can participate in the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, but even then, they can take part only one day a week because of limited spots.
“It is difficult to have children in any environment that is not conducive to being mobile, to learning, playing and growing,” said Tashira Halyard, the Playtime Project’s deputy director.
During Home Do, each of Kim’s students stakes a claim to a patch of grass and has a choice of what to plant. Saturday is gardening day, when the group spends three hours tending to peppers, cantaloupe, kale, watermelon and strawberries.
The soil is dry and weak, and Kim brings in water every day to keep the plants from dying and disappointing the kids. Together, they dig up patches of grass and flip them over, which kills any pulled-up weeds and feeds earthworms, which will enrich the soil.
On weekdays, Kim teaches the kids meditation and martial arts moves before the reward of fruit or a rice ball.
Kim said his focus is on making the kids feel important and wanted — feelings that are not always reinforced by family or teachers.
“The garden shows the kids they can care about something,” Kim said. “Somebody cares about them, and at the same time, they take care of the garden. Then we can eat together and thank God for it.”
Some kids are drawn to Kim because of his martial arts moves, others by the promise of a sweet treat. He strolls the halls of the shelter with his volunteers, asking parents to let their kids participate and get fresh air. He encourages the mothers to come along to watch over their children and work in the dirt with them.
Sakinah Butler has spent a month at the shelter with her 5-year-old son, Rasheed. Although he attends the Playtime Project, one day a week is not enough to keep him from getting bored, she said.
“He realizes that this is a different situation,” Butler said. “He doesn’t quite grasp the severity of it, but he can tell it is different. Sometimes, his behavior changes a little bit because of that.”
Butler said that Kim not only keeps them occupied but also teaches her and her son skills that can make life better when they eventually leave the shelter.
“It is somewhat of an inspiration,” Butler said. “He brings in a new kind of culture and positive energy when he is here. These are things I wish I knew growing up.”