One sign of spring on Capitol Hill is the gala dinner at the Folger Shakespeare Library that each year brings together several hundred people to honor neighbors for their particular contributions to the community. A fundraiser for the Capitol Hill Community Foundation, the dinner celebrates the many and varied ways that individuals enhance and support our neighborhood. This year’s honorees are Geoff Lewis, Steve and Mary Park, and Scott Kratz.
In 2005 Geoff Lewis’s attention was caught by an article in the AARP magazine about Beacon Hill Village, an organization designed to help people in a Boston neighborhood stay in their homes and familiar settings as they aged. Having seen his mother live in four different assisted living arrangements, “all of which she hated,” Lewis was immediately interested. Although he is quick to credit the many others who helped get the organization off the ground, it is thanks in large part to Geoff Lewis’s energy and determination that Capitol Hill Village is today an important part of our neighborhood with, as he says, “4 ½ full time employees,” a significant endowment fund, 500 members and more than 200 volunteers who give and receive hundreds of hours of volunteer time, driving Village members to medical appointments, doing office work, planning social activities, and making small home repairs.
Geoff spent most of his childhood in the DC area, living in Alexandria and attending Sidwell Friends School in 7th, 8th and 9th grades. Because his father was in the Foreign Service he went to boarding school in Massachusetts and spent summers and vacations “getting to see other cultures” while visiting his parents in Pakistan, Jordan, Paris and Africa.
After majoring in political science at Hobart College in New York State, Geoff returned to Washington and earned a Master’s Degree in public Administration from American University. He landed a job with the national office of the brand new Head Start program, part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. That’s where he met his wife, Terry. They married in 1970 and moved to Capitol Hill. As with many families, their children (two daughters, Rebecca and Jennifer) provided the entrée to volunteerism – with Terry he served as president of the babysitting coop and on the boards of Wee Care, Capitol Hill Day School and CHAMPS. By the time he retired in 1997, Geoff had spent thirty years in the federal government, much of his time in programs at EPA promoting clean water and secure hazardous waste disposal.
In retirement Geoff became the first resident member of CHAMPS, volunteered at the Church of the Brethren Soup Kitchen, and worked for Sharon Ambrose’s campaigns for City Council. Recognizing that he was getting older and did not want to leave Capitol Hill, founding Capitol Hill Village was the logical next step. Friends and acquaintances, built up over decades of life here, were more than ready to talk about the idea on street corners and then to donate money, time and creativity to making it a reality. “We took the Boston template,” Geoff says, “slapped it on Capitol Hill – with some relevant modifications — and it was a perfect place for it. It just made sense.” Of course there are still challenges, he says, but the basic concept is working and of that he is proud. “It’s the perfect example,” he says, “of neighbors helping neighbors.”
Mary and Steve Park
Mary and Steve Park are neighbors who help neighbors though in a quite different context from Capitol Hill Village. Since 1995 Little Lights Urban Ministries, founded by Steve and which they run together, has been offering what they describe as “sanctuaries of encouragement, hope and practical assistance to at-risk children, youth and families in Southeast Washington.” At Potomac Gardens and Hopkins Public Housing, Little Lights offers after-school tutoring in math and reading, mentorship, summer programs, and the ongoing friendship of their steady presence in the communities there.
Both Steve and Mary first came to this country as children, immigrants from Korea. Mary was 6 years old, excited to find a new home in an apartment in Westchester, New York where there were a “freezer full of chocolate bars and Tom & Jerry cartoons on TV.” It was the apartment’s landlord who chose new – American – names for Mary and her four siblings, and a teacher who offered the encouragement of smiles and patience when, on the first day of school, she didn’t know enough English to ask where the bathroom was. She quickly mastered the language and attended college at Binghamton University, where she majored in psychology, and Teachers’ College at Columbia University where she got a degree in counseling. Having moved to Maryland to live near one of her sisters, Mary was looking for a job in counseling when she met Steve and he told her about Little Lights. She thought she would do a little volunteering while waiting for a job but quickly discovered that she loved working with children. Even after she found a job as a counselor at the University of Maryland, her heart was less in her work than in “just doing random things with Little Lights.”
Steve had come to the U.S at age 7, arriving in Houston with his parents and two older sisters. He got to choose his American name himself – and selected the name of the hero of the TV series the Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin. School was not difficult for Steve but the atmosphere in Houston was not always friendly to Asians. His parents worked extremely long hours — “Korean immigrants selling tacos to Mexican Americans,” as he describes it. He was a “latchkey kid” with little sense of community. When his family moved to the suburbs of Washington, DC Steve attended middle and high school in Rockville where he enjoyed the more diverse and accepting community.
Back in Washington after college at Boston University, where he majored in English literature, Steve experienced a spiritual crisis, feeling himself bereft of moorings and increasingly unhappy. A combination of therapy, the simple but profound lessons of the best-selling book The Road Less Travelled (“Life is difficult…..”) and the tenderness and devotion of one of his sisters propelled him towards a deeper understanding of love and a compassionate view of the world. When he started helping out at the Tae Kwan Do studio his parents had started he “fell in love with kids.” When he met an 8th grade boy who “could not read a Dr. Seuss book” he sensed the direction he wanted to go in.
By the time Steve and Mary married in 2001 Little Lights was up and running, operating out of a townhouse at 7th and I streets Southeast they had renovated and named the Hope Center. Two school buses from Potomac Gardens brought guests to their wedding at the Global Mission church in Silver Spring. “We kept it simple,” Mary says but admits there were about 500 people there. The children from Little Lights sang a rousing rendition of “I Could Sing of Your Love forever.”
Since then Little Lights has continued to thrive, recruiting hundreds of volunteers and a strong board, receiving grants from the Department of Human Services and the D.C. Trust and securing interns through AmeriCorps – Vista. Steve and Mary have moved into their own home in Anacostia and have two children, Kayla and Dylan, now students at Washington Latin School. And they have seen young people they first tutored as six year olds at Potomac Gardens turn into helpers as Little Lights has expanded its reach into two different sites at Hopkins public housing and introduced new programs like the Clean Green Team, a garden maintenance company (originally started by Faith Works), and a discussion group on “race literacy” for volunteers and members of the community.
Both Steve and Mary have the security of knowing that, as they both say, “This is what I am going to do for life.” Mary adds that “those of us who have need to protect those who don’t.” But they look at what they do less as helping others than as building relationships. As Steve sees it, “Little Lights can be a bridge connecting young professionals to the people in public housing. We like being in that bridge building place.”
Scott Kratz is also in the business of bridge building but in his case it is a physical – as well as a psychological — bridge. As Executive Director of the 11th Street Bridge Park project he spends his time advocating for the public park, meeting and entertainment space that is quickly replacing the old spans of the original highway across the Anacostia River. He sees the Bridge Park, a project of the Ward 8 based non-profit “Building Bridges Across the River,” as a vital connection between the neighborhoods and communities on each bank.
Though often compared to the immensely popular High Line, the public walkway created on the tracks of the old elevated train tracks on New York’s lower West side, the 11th Street Bridge Park will be, according to Scott, something quite different. Like the High Line, it will be a public space where people can enjoy the outdoors but Scott sees that as just part of the story. The focus of his work raising money for and awareness of the project has been specifically on the park’s possibility to create connections between people in different parts of the city and to encourage engagement with the river itself. If he were to encapsulate what the Bridge Park means, he would draw a picture of last April’s second annual Anacostia River Festival when 8,000 people turned out to paddle on the river in kayaks and canoes, jam with a “Go-Go Symphony,” listen to the Navy Band and dance on the river’s banks..
Scott Kratz is originally from Berkeley, a fourth generation Californian who moved east when he was in the second grade and his father got a job at IBM in New York. At the Daycroft School, where his mom was an admissions officer, he boarded during the week and went home on weekends. He was president of the student body, ran cross country, played goalie on the soccer team and was in lots of plays. He had wonderful teachers who ignited in him a “love and passion for history.” At Pomona College in southern California he majored in history, writing a thesis on the role of the media in the overthrow of President Arbenz of Guatemala in 1958.
After what he describes as a “horrible stint working in real estate,” Scott found his way to the world of museums where he worked for twenty years. First at a Children’s Museum then at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, both in Southern California and, finally, at the Building Museum here in Washington, he learned the wide range of skills that inform his work on the Bridge Project — overseeing staff, fundraising and, his particular favorite, education. At each place part of the task was to ask “What is the story we have to tell?” and “Who is this for?”
In 2006 Scott and his wife, Lisa Mascaro, a journalist who covers Congress for the L.A. Times, moved to D.C. and to Capitol Hill where both felt a great sense of neighborhood and of intimacy after the vastness of Los Angeles. In connection with his work at the Building Museum, Scott met the director of the D.C. Office of Planning, Harriet Tregoning, and asked her what he thought was an innocent question about construction in the neighborhood. “What’s happening on the 11th Street bridges?” Hearing her idea to transform the old freeway into a park over the river, he was hooked. For two years he worked as a volunteer, meeting with “any group that would have me on the agenda” to tell them about the Bridge Park concept. In over 200 such meetings he found some “apprehension” east of the river that the park might mean gentrification and a loss of the sense of the community as theirs. Scott quickly became convinced that “the only way this would work would be if it served the communities on both sides of the river.”
With a significant commitment of financial support from the DC government, a grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a generous donation from local philanthropists Lynne and Joe Horning, and other major grants pending, with a design in place by OMA and Olin Studio, architecture firms based in the Netherlands and in Philadelphia and the permitting process begun, Scott’s enthusiasm is high. Of course there is still a lot to do including an Equitable Development Plan that will ensure that local residents who live near the future Bridge Park can stay and thrive in place. But he is eager to do it. He fully expects to be here to see the Anacostia River fishable and swimmable (or at least a lot cleaner than it is now) and the 11th Street Bridge Park a lively, inviting place for people from all over the city to mix and mingle. D.C., he says, is now “home.”