Engaging Community Needs at a Local D.C. Community Center
June 17, 2016
A few weeks ago, I woke up early on a Saturday morning to head down to the Perry School Community Services Center for what I thought was going to be interfaith gardening with Little Friends for Peace. As I understood, I would be gardening with a group of small children and perhaps playing some games. It sounded pretty easy, even fun.
The weather, however, had other plans. After a few weeks of beautiful, warm weather, that Saturday was cold, damp, and rainy—hardly a day for gardening. But still, I headed down to the community center to see what was in store. The day did not go as smoothly as I had hoped. I had never been to the community center before so I did not know what it looked like as I approached. My Uber driver, seeing the area, refused to let me out of the car at the address I gave him, claiming the area was too dangerous, and that there was no way I actually wanted to go there. Instead, he dropped me off outside a CVS and insisted this was the correct address. I tried calling the community center, but the line dropped. Cold, wet, and frustrated, I considered just calling another Uber and heading home; I had tried. Instead, I decided to call the community center one last time, and this time spoke to the director of the program. She explained that the community center really was where the Uber driver claimed was too dangerous for me, and that it would be a short walk from the CVS.
Against what I am sure would have been my mother’s wishes, I walked back up the hill through the rain to look for the building. To my luck, I found it! When I made my way to the right room, I found a group of other enthusiastic volunteers ready to do whatever they could despite the rain. I was slightly dispirited, but after seeing the other volunteers and listening to the director of the program explain all the work that needed to be done at the community center, I was glad I made it.
The director explained that we would be walking over to the neighborhood to deliver various supplies and to find some of the kids who normally jumped at the opportunity to come to the community center for programming. She figured they were mostly inside because of the rain. A group of us walked over to the neighborhood to drop off some supplies for a woman in the neighborhood who was sick; she acts as a mentor for children in the neighborhood, providing snacks, meals, and a safe place to hang out and do homework when they need one. We hoped to find some kids who would be interested in coming to the community center for the afternoon when we made it to her house.
As we walked through the neighborhood, we found it all but deserted from the bad weather. When we got to the house, there was one child eagerly waiting for us. We brought him back to the community center, and the two of us quickly hit it off playing with Play-Doh. He even declared me the president of the room and said he was my vice president. I finally started to feel as though the day was going alright when the boy got a call from his mom and had to suddenly leave. I cleaned up the Play-Doh, feeling both concerned for the boy and slightly bummed to no longer have someone to hang out with and do what I had come to do.
I spent the rest of my time cleaning the reading and art rooms and sorting donation supplies. It may not have been the fun and easy task I signed up for, but I was glad to help in whatever way I could. When we gathered to say goodbye at the end of the day, the director was extremely apologetic that the kids were not at Perry for the day but thanked us for helping her get the center organized for the regular weekly activities. I left the community center slightly disappointed, but with a sense that sticking around had been the right thing to do.
My experience at the community center was certainly different than I was hoping it would be, but that was okay. I am glad I was able to help and think it was ultimately good that my expectations were not fulfilled. It was a good exercise for me to move out of my comfort zone and spend a day in a community I would not normally be in, completing tasks I would not normally choose. Although projects can be extremely fun, I had a great time meeting other volunteers at Perry. Having fun is not the main focus of interfaith service; it is about dedicating yourself to understanding community needs and working to meet those needs, whatever they may be. I met some other young volunteers who are setting up a program for young professionals in Washington, D.C. to get out into different communities in the city and assist in community projects. They are planning a community sports day at Perry, and I hope to volunteer with them again soon and get to know the community more. I may not have gardened with small children, but I did begin to engage difference, and that is the point of this program.