Rashidah Shabazz, right, is a client of Community of Hope. Her her son Isaiah, 9, is at left. Between them is their Community of Hope case manager, Jamia Morrow. (John Kelly/TWP)
Columnist

Rashidah Shabazz looked across the living room of her Southeast Washington apartment and pleaded with Jamia Morrow, a case manager from Community of Hope, a charity that helps lift District families from homelessness. Maybe Jamia could answer a few of my questions?

“I told you I was going to sit here and let you talk,” Jamia said, not unkindly. “Me telling your story is not as powerful as you telling your own story.”

Rashidah sighed. “I could miss something,” she said. “I don’t know how to say it. If it gets too deep, I start crying.”

But it was her story, and Rashidah told it well: how she became pregnant at 15 by a man 10 years her senior. How she dropped out of school. How she went into foster care. She described how she’d found something close to love in some foster homes but ran away from others. She talked about being homeless.

When Rashidah, 25, talked about her son Isaiah, now 9, she took down from a shelf a snow globe and a small wooden box, its lid adorned with plastic jewels. Inside the hand-decorated box was a pair of earrings, a gift from Isaiah.

This was the first Christmas, Rashidah said, when Isaiah had thought as much about giving presents as receiving them.

“He don’t know how much it means to me,” she said while doing exactly what she’d feared: crying.

Rashidah’s life has not been easy. She never returned to school after dropping out. She has two more children now: 4-year-old Ka’zayah and 16-month-old Kendall. Hers is one of 115 families that receive intensive support in Community of Hope’s permanent supportive-housing program.

Community of Hope housing specialists help clients find apartments. It helps with the security deposit and helps the families move in.

Community of Hope also helped find a new school for Isaiah. He was having issues at his previous school. Some weeks it seemed the school called Rashidah every day asking her to pick him up. That made it nearly impossible for her to focus on an important goal she and Jamia had talked about: earning her high school equivalency degree.

But with Isaiah now thriving at Cleveland Elementary, Rashidah has been able to take GED preparation classes at the Center for Empowerment and Employment Training. She goes for three hours, four nights a week. Other GED programs she’d tried hadn’t worked, but CEET even provides child care.

Before the Christmas break, everyone in her small class was told they’d be taking a test to gauge their progress.

“At first I was upset,” Rashidah said. “I said: ‘I’m not taking this test. I know I’m not going to pass.’ ”

She didn’t pass — it was just an assessment — but she did better than she thought she would, and better than a few students who had always impressed her as smarter.

And then what, after the GED?

“And then what?” she repeated. “After I get my GED, I want to get a job. I don’t really mind what kind of job. I want to get a job so I can start a bank account.”

She let that train of thought run.

“I also want a house, a home: front yard, backyard type stuff.”

But first, that GED. “Everybody keeps telling me: ‘You want to be someone, Rashidah, you got to get your GED.’ ”

Rashidah had decorated the front door of her apartment with wrapping paper. Inside, plastic snowflakes hung from the ceiling, and a tree was covered in ornaments and lights. Under the tree were presents, many from the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program.

I asked Rashidah what things she felt she missed out on growing up, what things she wishes she knew. She turned my question around.

“Some things I do know I wish I never knew,” she said. There are parts of her past she wishes she was “still blind to.”

Jamia said: “I tell her the past is just the past, the present is a gift and the future is a mystery to be determined. You can’t change the past, but you can use your present gift to determine what the future will be.”

Rashidah nodded. “That’s where I am, right there,” she said. “I’m learning one day at a time. The past is the past. That’s something that I can’t fix or go back and change. But this gift right here? I’m trying to get that GED, trying to get that bank account, trying to better myself, trying to break the cycle. . . .

“I just thank God for Community of Hope. Sometimes I think if it weren’t for them, I’d probably still be out there.”

You can help

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that a collection of setbacks — poverty, frayed parental bonds, teenage pregnancy, lack of education — often combine to tumble families into homelessness. Community of Hope steps in to reverse those setbacks.

This is the last column I’m writing about Community of Hope. Soon we will pick three new local charities for me to highlight in the fall. Our goal is to raise $225,000 by Friday. We stand at $147,800.

Please help put us over the top. To donate online to Community of Hope, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to “Community of Hope” and mail it to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20032. Thank you.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.