The first thing Denise Day did after shots rang out while she was taking her children outside one evening 23 years ago was check to make sure her kids hadn't been hit.
The family was living in a public-housing project in Southeast Washington. Everyone knew that when you heard gunfire you dropped to the floor, below the windows, but these shots had been fired as Day and her toddlers were in the building's vestibule.
"My immediate response was to grab my kids," she said.
She took them upstairs to their apartment, stripping off their clothes to look for injuries.
"They said they were okay," Day said.
But someone had been hit. There was blood in the hallway.
"My husband said: 'You have a hole in your shirt,'" Day said.
The bullet had passed through her abdomen.
The shooting two decades ago put her on the path to where she is today: an associate teacher in a room full of 12- to 24-month-olds at Bright Beginnings, a preschool at First and M streets NW and a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.
Day, 50, has something in common with the families Bright Beginnings serves: She was once without a home. She became homeless after dropping out of high school in 11th grade, a teenage mother.
The public housing project on Anacostia Road SE that she eventually moved into had never seemed safe. The shooting proved it.
"I felt like I had failed as a parent," Day said. "I felt hopeless at that time, not being able to protect my children or having a safe place for them to be kids and play outside. That was the reason I wanted to move out of the neighborhood."
Day searched until she found a transitional housing program run by the charity Hope and a Home, which moved her family into an apartment on Columbia Road NW.
Then she found Bright Beginnings. The charity has a two-generation approach to combating poverty. Children go to its preschool. Their parents participate in its educational programming. Day volunteered in the classrooms of her two youngest daughters, Tyesha and Tierra.
"Child care's always been a passion of mine," she said. "I had dropped out of school but I still encouraged others to go, even though they had babies. A couple of girls in my apartment building, I took care of their children."
With the help of Bright Beginnings, Day found a program that enabled her to complete her GED. She then enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia to study early-childhood education. In May, she earned her associate degree. This month, she's starting on a bachelor's degree in human development.
Bright Beginnings has helped in other ways. Day's daughter Tyesha was born with a cleft palate. A doctor had decided the condition was not medically dangerous — and thus ineligible for insurance to cover surgery.
Bright Beginnings had Tyesha assessed and determined the cleft palate affected her speech.
They brought in a speech therapist to work with Tyesha and wrote a referral that convinced an insurance company to cover a surgical procedure.
"If it wasn't for me finding out about Bright Beginnings, she probably wouldn't have received a referral until she got into public school," Day said. (Tyesha, 24, graduated in 2016 from Penn State.)
Today, Day works in Room 2 at Bright Beginnings, assisting with a dozen children.
She makes time for their parents, too.
"With a lot of the parents, I'm able to share my story," Day said. "I also try to give them words of encouragement as well: not to give up hope, that they, too, can do the same things."
Day urges them to use the many resources at Bright Beginnings: parenting classes, employment counseling, financial literacy classes.
The combination seemed to work for her.
"That's why I'm at Bright Beginnings now," Day said. "I want to give back some of the things that my family has received from them. If it wasn't for them, there's no telling where I would be at this time."
This is the last column I'll be writing about Bright Beginnings during this year's Helping Hand campaign. Our fund drive ends Friday. Please help us reach our goal of $200,000 and help families such as Denise Day's.
To give, visit posthelpinghand.com and click "Donate." To contribute by mail, make a check payable to "Bright Beginnings" and send it to: Bright Beginnings, Attn: Helping Hand, 128 M St. NW, Suite 150, Washington, D.C. 20001.
Join me at 2 p.m. Wednesday for a Facebook Live chat with Bright Beginnings executive director Marla Dean. Go to facebook.com/washingtonpost.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.