A 3-year-old is standing in the doorway of a community room at a nursing home in Northeast Washington. He has a jingle bell on a ribbon looped around his neck and a quizzical look on his face.
A group of elderly residents is seated at a table. A small, wizened woman dressed neatly in a skirt and sweater rises. “Look at that little boy,” she says. “He’s thinking, ‘What kind of old people are these?’ ”
She chuckles, then says, “We’ll all be there sometime.”
Old, she means.
I ask her age. “Old enough to vote,” she answers with a sly smile. She says she has grandchildren. And she’s thinking that her mother may visit, which seems unlikely, given that — as I learn later — she’s 94.
“It doesn’t matter how much Alzheimer’s a person has, they love children,” says Celeste Brooks, director of therapeutic activities at the nursing home, Stoddard Baptist Global Care at Washington Center for Aging Services.
The little boy and his mother — along with members of eight other families, whose children range from toddlers to teenagers — are there to sing Christmas carols. It’s all because of the remarkable Dodie Brady and a charity she runs, Global Harmony Through Personal Excellence.
For years Dodie, 68, has been inviting clients of a District charity, Community of Hope, to join her and her friends as they visit the nursing home. Community of Hope has two apartment buildings — Hope House in Southeast Washington and Girard Street in Northwest — that offer sanctuary to families in desperate need of a home, some of which are headed by parents dealing with substance abuse.
“Share yourselves,” Dodie said before they moved through the nursing home. “Share your goodness. Some of the residents might be sad or lonely. You’re going to be their bright spot for the day. You’re going to cheer them up.”
The group moves through the nursing home like a Yuletide tornado, jingle-bell necklaces chiming. The children have made Christmas cards they hand to residents as their parents belt out seasonal classics such as “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls.”
It’s the first time Community of Hope client Janetta Cooper and her kids — Jaleel, 16, and Janee, 12 — have been caroling. Janetta is a natural, launching into the songs with gusto, tucking Christmas cards into the laps of residents and giving their hands a reassuring squeeze. She does have one question: What on earth is a figgy pudding?
Caroling was always something Dodie and her husband, Jim, liked to do. They’d do it at nursing homes every Christmas. Their goddaughter, Rebecca Carroll, was a volunteer with Community of Hope. Perhaps, she said, the kids would like to go along.
That was 25 years ago. The event has grown since then. Dodie used to cajole her friends to carpool. Now she rents a bus.
“I believe in connecting people,” Dodie says. “I believe in connecting parts of the city.”
She’s connecting the children to the elderly residents of the nursing home. And she’s connecting the mostly African American families served by Community of Hope with her friends — largely white, from upper Northwest.
After an hour and a half of caroling, the families climb back into the bus and head across town to Dodie and Jim’s house in the District’s Chevy Chase neighborhood. There are six Christmas trees placed throughout the home. Every window is stenciled with holiday motifs. A buffet — ham, macaroni and cheese, green beans, salad, cake, cookies and brownies — is set out.
Jim had triple-bypass surgery last week so he isn’t in the thick of things as much as usual, but he comes downstairs to the living room and tells me about his youth. Every Christmas, his family would visit an aunt and uncle who lived in a mansion at 17th and Q streets NW. Servants would offer soda on silver trays. There was a life-size creche.
“That’s why we overdecorate,” Jim said.
These children — many of whom have moved repeatedly as their parents sought stability, many of whom have lived in the shelter at D.C. General — should have good memories of Christmas.
And there’s something else: “It allowed children who had so little to give of themselves,” Jim says. On the Saturday before Christmas, they gave to strangers the gift of their rejuvenating presence.
“You all gave today at the nursing home,” Dodie says. “We want to give something to you.”
Dodie and Jim — along with dozens of volunteers who have been working with them for weeks — have filled large shopping bags with gifts tailored to each of the Community of Hope families.
“A lot of people care about you and are rooting for you,” Dodie says before the families get into the bus that will take them back to the place where everyone wants to be this time of year: home.
Is it better to give than receive? There’s only one way to find out. Your gift will help Community of Hope move District families out of homelessness. Please make a tax-deductible donation by going to posthelpinghand.com. To give by mail, send a check, payable to “Community of Hope,” to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20032.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.