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Lindsay Luthe

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What a Difference One Day of Service Makes

Posted: 06/21/09 10:00 AM ET

Half of households are unemployed.

The average income is $14,000.

Prior to my arrival to the Barry Farm Recreation Center, adjacent to a low-income housing development, on the morning of Saturday, June 13, this is all I knew -- daunting statistics.

Upon my arrival to the recreation center, what I quickly realized about the area was the alarming presence of broken, jagged and dangerous pieces of glass. Beer bottles, liquor bottles, food jars. You name it; it was broken -- and everywhere: embedded in the grass, shattered across the sidewalks, and strewn across the playing fields.

This was a place where children were expected to play.

That morning I was accompanied by 100 volunteers from a corporation headquartered relatively close -- a mere seven miles away -- close at least geographically. These professionals worked in a world with drastically different household incomes, quality of public schools, housing values, and crime statistics.

Across the next 5 hours what I knew of Barry Farm and the people of this neighborhood was completely transformed. Volunteers were dispatched to 15 unique projects across the grounds such as painting graffiti style murals, cutting overgrown weeds from the basketball courts, painting games on blacktops, collecting trash and preparing a garden for neighborhood children to grow healthy fruits and vegetables.

These projects and their impact, however, were not what transformed my perception of the neighborhood: it was the people of Barry Farm that recreated this perception.

As I roamed from project to project ensuring the volunteers were prepared and progressing, I realized that many residents of Barry Farm were volunteering alongside the corporate volunteers. I met a 50 year old woman, who was hearing impaired. She signed and spoke her story to me, followed by a genuine hug. I met a group of elementary school aged boys who happily shared the volunteers' snacks and patiently reminded me of the rules of hopscotch and foursquare. And I was chased down by a loud, stern voice from behind, "excuse me, EXCUSE ME." As I nervously turned, a determined face delivered the most sincere thank you I have ever received.

To many in Washington, DC, the Barry Farms neighborhood is known for being "east of the River", "on the Green Line" and "in Anacostia," all phrases that are incorrectly synonymous with dangerous and poor. When I arrived to the recreation center what I knew about the neighborhood was misconceptions, statistics and broken glass. However, the residents and their overwhelming presence and optimistic attitudes transformed my view of this neighborhood. As I drove away I knew that Barry Farm was home to happy and welcoming neighbors, fun and friendly children, shiny new murals, and a safe place to play.

Lindsay Luthe is a Program Manager at the CityBridge Foundation. The CityBridge Foundation is the private, family foundation of David G. and Katherine B. Bradley. Located in Washington, DC, CityBridge focuses on accelerating education reform and managing innovative civic engagement.