When our founder, Rev. Donald E. Robinson decided to start an afterschool organization in the Edgewood neighborhood of Northeast Washington, Edgewood was known as “Little Beirut” due to the proliferation of drugs and violent crime there. Children in Edgewood were dropping out of school in the elementary grades. “Rev,” as he was fondly known, wanted to provide a place where children in Edgewood could be safe and surrounded by people who would encourage them to stay in school. He named Beacon House thinking of the role of a lighthouse in a storm – that it would serve as a beacon of safety. Early support from Edgewood residents and DC-area Unitarian Universalist churches were critical to Beacon House’s establishment and growth.
What began in 1991 as a homework help program serving a dozen children in a basement apartment in an affordable housing complex has become a thriving community-based organization providing a range of high-quality afterschool education and youth development programs and services to approximately 400 children annually. Over the course of 30 years, as a result of Rev’s vision, Beacon House has helped hundreds of students graduate from high school with a plan for continued education. In the process, Beacon House has become an anchor organization in Edgewood. Beacon House parent Kyia Branham described Beacon House as “the root of this community” and “part of the glue that holds Edgewood together.”
We are differentiated from most out-of-school-time organizations in DC by the fact that we are a place-based organization that serves children right where they live. We work with children ages 5 to 18, and many of the students we serve attend Beacon House for the majority of their school-aged lives. The relationships we form with families over time are foundational to our work. Scores of people who attended Beacon House have returned to volunteer in our programs, and some have children of their own who attend Beacon House now. For these reasons and others, Beacon House has become an integral component of Edgewood’s social fabric. We’re deeply embedded in the life of the community in Edgewood.
We are based in the Edgewood Commons affordable housing community, known formerly as Edgewood Terrace, where the average annual household income is approximately $12,000. Most of the children we serve live in Edgewood Commons, and 96% of the children we serve are Black. Despite the racial and economic inequities our students face, they demonstrate year after year that they can and will achieve educational success. From 2008 to 2021, 94% of our high school seniors graduated with plans in place to attend college or trade school or to enlist in military service. Further, our students and alumni are making their mark on local and national stages through their many accomplishments.
One way we advance our mission is by partnering – bringing the best of DC to students in Edgewood. Our creative writing partnership with Shout Mouse Press, which dates to 2014, is one example. Shout Mouse Press, with its mission to “amplify unheard voices,” has provided a unique platform for Beacon House’s students to express their thoughts and develop their writing skills. The Beacon House – Shout Mouse Press partnership has resulted in three successful book development projects involving Beacon House teens. Most notably, 10 girls in our program received national recognition for their book The Day Tajon Got Shot, a work of fiction inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement that was published in the spring of 2017. More recently in 2021, four boys in the program overcame the COVID-19 pandemic’s many challenges to write their first book, Black Boys Dreaming: Virtual Verse and Pandemic Prose. We also have strong long standing program partner relationships with organizations including The Catholic University of America, College Bound, and Reach, Incorporated. For the past 10 years, we have partnered with Dr. Monica S. Ruiz of the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health to help us evaluate the impact of our programs.
In 2017, the year I was selected to serve as Beacon House’s CEO/Executive Director, we launched one of our most ambitious new program development initiatives, ILLUMINATE_2020 to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help equip our students to succeed in a world that is increasingly technologically driven and globally interconnected. Through ILLUMINATE_2020, we added a new focus on 21st century skill-building, technology-enabled learning and STEM and STEAM-focused lessons. From 2017 to 2020, we piloted new programs and activities aligned with four themes that emerged as priorities based on extensive community input we gathered. These include opportunities for competition beyond sports; hands-on project-based learning that connects to the school day; mentoring with professionals, particularly in STEM fields, and between older and younger youth; and design challenges where youth work collaboratively to solve a problem or use a set of standard materials to create an object. Now we are preparing to launch the next iteration of the initiative, ILLUMINATE_2.0, which will focus more on the needs of our older students who’ve expressed specific interest in learning from professional mentors in the technology field. In line with this expressed interest, ILLUMINATE_2.0 will have a strong focus on STEM career mentoring and real-world learning opportunities.
Families in Edgewood rely on Beacon House to provide low-cost, high-quality afterschool programming. Following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, we reaffirmed to our families our commitment to be here for children in Edgewood for as long as we are needed. We know that Beacon House’s role in creating safety and opportunity for children in Edgewood has never been more vital. For this reason, we will continue to work relentlessly every single day to ensure our continuing ability to drive equitable educational outcomes for Black and Brown students in Ward 5. Our students deserve no less, now and into the future, for as long as we are needed.