Jacob has a big box overflowing with Christmas gifts and an attentive mother who is constantly playing with him.
For teaching her to be the sort of mother she never had, Scheinman credits the Healthy Babies Project. The nonprofit organization in Northeast Washington houses her and her two young sons, along with five other young mothers and their babies, and teaches skills to more than 300 young women and girls annually in the District, including pregnancy prevention classes for teenagers and parenting classes for baffled new mothers, as Scheinman once was.
“When I came here, I had nowhere to go, no family,” Scheinman recalls. Her relationship with her adoptive mother had broken down. Jacob was 6 weeks old. “I had this just-born fresh baby. I had to learn to be a mom. I was 18. Jacob cried a lot, and everyone at the house would pitch in. He was always being held by somebody.”
The Healthy Babies Project is scrambling to raise money to try to keep possession of the families’ house, a one-level brick building that serves all at once as classroom and office space and home to a half-dozen toddlers and their moms.
The landlord wants to sell the building, with no guarantee that a new owner would continue to rent it to Healthy Babies Project. So the organization is trying to raise money so that it can buy the building itself.
It has significant supporters, including Marriott, which made a $50,000 donation, according to Healthy Babies Project Executive Director Regine Elie. But the goal of buying the building is a tough one. So far, Elie has drummed up more than $130,000 in donations; the owner is asking $650,000 for the house, which is on a residential street not far from the Minnesota Avenue Metro station.
Since moving into the building in 2012, the organization has put a lot of work into fixing it up. Elie found donors and volunteers to provide carpeting for the bare floors and a playground out front for the many resident children; she got churches and other groups to decorate each individual bedroom in its own theme; she got Sherwin Williams to provide paint for the walls.
The house now is a bustling hub. In the kitchen, between high chairs, bouncy seats and strollers, the moms consult a bulletin board advertising a range of services, goods and classes, including preschools, diapers and a training program to get a commercial driver’s license. In the room that a team of volunteers converted into a cramped office for the eight-person staff, one employee simultaneously makes a professional phone call and waves hi to Jacob, who just wandered in with a toy firetruck. In the classroom in the center of the house, energetic teenage girls are shouting the lyrics to a rap song. They’re voluntarily spending four days of their winter break taking a pregnancy prevention class; their peer educator, Rose, a high school student at D.C. International School, is using the song to point out negative lessons in pop culture that the girls need to overcome.
Re-creating all of this in a new house would be a daunting burden that Elie hopes she won’t have to face. This is the house that she worked hard to convert to meet the many needs of her clients, pregnant and parenting young women up to age 24. She would like Healthy Babies Project to own it.
The organization offered $450,000, which Elie thought was a reasonable bid in a neighborhood where real estate estimators price most homes on the block in the $300,000 range. But District tax assessors said in 2018 that this property is worth $633,570, almost $100,000 more than the 2017 estimate.
The owner turned down her initial offer.
According to property records, the house is owned by a corporation called 500 Eastern Avenue LLC. There is no individual listed in the records. Elie says her rental documents give the landlord’s name as Dixon A. Oladele, a Washington landlord who has been arrested and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for housing code violations. Oladele did not respond to phone calls from The Washington Post about the house.
This house was what Elie first dreamed of when she came to Healthy Babies Project, which was founded in 1990. “I always wanted to do housing,” she said. “A lot of the girls were homeless when they were coming in to us. My vision for the agency came to be a reality.”
It’s a place where Elie, who has a long history of working with struggling youths, and her co-workers support each individual young mother in whatever way they can — whether that means finding Scheinman a tutor to help her get her GED, stopping in the middle of a workday if a mom wants advice about a romantic conundrum, helping the moms save money so they can rent their own apartments someday, or teaching a new mom about breast-feeding or nutrition or bonding with her baby.
Elie says she strives to offer all options to the pregnant teenagers and young women who come to this house, often drawn by the promise of drop-in pregnancy tests for just $2 for anyone under 21.
“If they say they want an abortion, we look up resources. We’ll support either direction. It’s not my decision,” she said.
What she tells the mothers who decide to raise their babies is that she can help them complete their educations and start stable lives for their children.
She looks at the Christmas cards on her office wall, pointing out moms who came through this house who are married now, who own their own homes, who went to college. Scheinman will be the next, when she starts classes at UDC this semester. She wants to become a registered nurse.
Just outside her office door, Jacob is running up to Scheinman, holding out his hand. “I was dancing and then I got hurt!” he says. Scheinman scoops him up and kisses his fingers.
“You were dancing too hard? Too awesomely?” she says, holding him close. He’s giggling now. “I got you though. I love you.”