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WHERE ARE THEY NOW: 'The clean-up person'

National | Four years later, Hannah Hawkins still labors in obscurity, cleaning up government welfare's messes

Issue: "1st-grade murder," March 11, 2000

One of the rightful criticisms of national magazines is that they're one-shot deals: Write about a person and never find out what happens to him. But a letter WORLD received last year asked what had happened to Hannah Hawkins, a gutsy, 58-year-old Washington, D.C., woman I profiled four years ago. It was time to break the one-shot tendency, so during a recent capital visit I headed over to Anacostia, the area of D.C. that the tourist guides forget.

Mrs. Hawkins is a retired school administrative aide (and widowed mother of five grown children) who since 1985 has run a crowded after-school program, called Children of Mine, at a rundown community center. Four years ago, government-funded but program-poor organizations asked her to bring several dozen children on particular days when officials were visiting, so that their facilities did not look like ghost towns. "The pimping of children," she called it then, and vowed never to be used that way again.

Her program during the four years since those days has changed little. Four score children still come after school every day to do their homework and eat a hot meal. A little publicity improved her volunteer situation, and for four days a week students now not only receive tutoring, counseling, and Bible lessons, but can also take part in arts and crafts workshops, dance, drama, and team sports.

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Nor has Mrs. Hawkins's view of government officials changed. When I visited her, she had just come from a government-sponsored meeting about southeast revitalization, where the same old same old was happening once again: "The beautiful people were there, looking for more," she said. "Just like the War on Poverty money went into the pockets of the greedy, these folks are ready to clean up-unless stuff gets funky, then they call me in to be the clean-up person."

What still animates her is the "covenant with God" she made in 1970. Devastated by the murder of her husband, she asked for this deal: "If He would allow me to get up out of my bed, that I would serve those that were less fortunate." She's in the right place to do that, because in Anacostia, not only the fathers but many of the mothers are missing, with grandmas drafted. Older children bring small ones with them to Mrs. Hawkins's program. One 12-year-old brings a 3-year-old; she's the one who's raising her.

It's satisfying in some ways that nothing has changed, because perseverance is rare today. It's disappointing in other ways, though, because in four years, given the needs in her community, Mrs. Hawkins's program should have grown or replicated itself. Lack of funds has held it back, but Mrs. Hawkins won't think of taking government money: "Couldn't have prayer. And when they finish with you, it's not your program, it's theirs."

She did once agree to take government-supplied meals, but was not impressed: "The milk was warm, the tacos were cold, and the watermelon was sour. Some of the children didn't want milk, so I didn't give it to them, and then the government people said you didn't give the children complete meals. I said I wanted to teach the children not to waste, but the government people told me, 'Give it to them anyway. Give them a complete meal, and let them throw it in the trash.'"

Hannah Hawkins has some company in her complaint. A study by the Jeremiah Project, a subset of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Civic Innovation, found that faith-based organizations in Washington, most run entirely by volunteers, serve about 3,500 children each week. But few leaders have much confidence in government help. They are concerned about the freedom to evangelize but also about their ability to avoid red-tape tie-ups.

There's some talk in Washington these days about "charitable choice," the provision of welfare reform that allows federal funds to go to religious groups without requiring them to jump through secular hoops. If charitable choice were extended to other programs, and interpreted so that Christian groups would not have to imitate government programs to receive funds, the measure could immensely help groups like Children of Mine.

That's a lot to hope for, though, because the Clinton-Gore interpretation that is currently official doctrine-no prayer, no proselytizing-would not be helpful at all. Most of the children Hannah Hawkins helps have had little if any discipline or teaching about Jesus in their lives, and she knows she has to make up for lost time. "I ain't easy to deal with," Hannah Hawkins concludes, "but my children know I love them and care about them." She prays with them and for them, and she won't allow any offers of government help to keep her from doing that.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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