Shekita McBroom, 43, tries to hold back tears when talking about her Congress Park neighborhood in Southeast Washington.
“I’ve seen more bad things happen here than good things,” said McBroom, who has lived in the area for more than 20 years and is a commissioner with Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8E. “Normally, when you come here, it’s to talk about senseless acts of crime. Today it’s for something positive.”
That good feeling radiated throughout the day Wednesday as members of the Congress Park community joined veterans to give the neighborhood playground a much-needed makeover.
More than 100 people of all ages — most of them former military personnel — came out on Veterans Day to help install basketball hoops, build picnic tables and plant flower bulbs as part of a community revitalization project sponsored by a veterans’ organization called The Mission Continues.
The St. Louis-based nonprofit group was formed in 2007 as a way to help veterans adjusting to civilian life collaborate with underserved communities on development projects.
It is important for many returning veterans to find a strong support network and to still contribute to society, said Mary Beth Bruggeman, executive director for the Southeast region of The Mission Continues.
Bruggeman served as a Marine from 1999 to 2007, retiring as a captain. Like many veterans, she said, she coped with the loss of her tightknit community and sense of purpose in life.
“The day I left active duty, my husband and I went to the movies. When I had to turn off my cellphone, I just started crying,” she said. “I was so used to constantly getting calls on duty and I struggled with the idea that no one would need me or my leadership anymore.”
Unemployment remains a major problem among veterans. The jobless rate for post-9/11 veterans last February was 6.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The suicide rate is also high and has increased by 27.3 percent between 2012 and 2014, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The organization not only gives veterans the opportunity to take on leadership roles, Bruggeman said, but also allows them to serve areas in need. The Mission Continues is a national network, but the District has more than 400 members divided into five service platoons. Each platoon is responsible for a different part of the city and tackles community health and education, in addition to neighborhood revitalization.
Past projects include painting a mural and planting a garden at the Democracy Prep Congress Heights Public Charter School, as well as installing fitness equipment at Fort Mahan Park in Northeast Washington.
Army Maj. Travis Dettmer, 38, joined The Mission Continues in August. Dettmer, still on active duty, works at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade and said he was attracted by the group’s active role. “Most of the vets out here were part of a bigger team when they were in active duty,” he said. “This is a way to get together and leverage that teamwork and that family aspect that goes with military service.”
The key to meaningful neighborhood development is building trust with the community and having a lasting presence, said Andy Lundin, 41, leader of the Congress Park service platoon.
When The Mission Continues started planning the playground project in September, the members met with McBroom and spoke with dozens of residents to assess Congress Park’s needs.
“I don’t believe that I can come into a community and dictate what they need or what they want,” Lundin said. “They have to take pride in and be a part of everything that we do.”
The residents overwhelmingly stressed the need for a place where children could play and where families could gather.
Shirley Sutton, 78, has lived in Congress Park for more than 30 years. The neighborhood has somewhat improved during that time, she said, but the children often have nothing to do for fun other than roam the streets.
Sutton hopes a new playground will keep the kids out of trouble and will motivate families to spend time together, she said.
The playground project will take several weeks to finish. The Mission Continues has an application pending with KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit organization that provides grants to build playgrounds.
McBroom hopes this project is the beginning of a long partnership between the organization and Congress Park.
“I’m so overwhelmed and appreciative of their presence,” she said. “I’ve cried so many tears of pain in the past. It’s nice to finally cry some tears of joy.”