WASHINGTON, D.C.-Forty children stand at attention in two rows, backpacks jostling up against each other, as they adjust their coats and get ready to head home for the evening.
"I need one person to tell me what a verb is," booms Hannah Hawkins. A little girl in an oversized white coat gazes up at the trim, 60-something African-American. Others stare at the bags of snacks waiting to be passed out and taken home.
Two decades ago Hawkins, a single mother of five, couldn't stand to see children getting sucked into the southeast D.C. drug scene. She began the Children of Mine Center, an after-school program for these at-risk kids, out of her two-bedroom apartment: "A lot of people see needs and do nothing about it. I saw a need, and it was a possibility that I could do something."
In 1992 Hawkins moved CMC to a sprawling abandoned house on Mount View Place, a dope-dealers' alley. WORLD profiled her in 1996 and again on March 11, 2000. In a world of burnout, it's remarkable that she still welcomes to her center more than 70 kids every afternoon. There, she and a handful of volunteers still dish out a full meal, tutor, counsel, lead Bible studies, organize arts and crafts, and offer daily grammar lessons.
Hawkins and her volunteers also encourage recreational activity in a chaotic playground, a gift from Home Depot when Hawkins received the 2004 President's Volunteer Service Award. One long-term helper, Wanda Layne, says, "I don't have any biological kids, but I have 100 kids here."
Eric Hall, a burly southeast native the kids have nicknamed "security guard," has been volunteering at CMC for the past five years. His nephew came here. His sister came here. He admits that helping out at CMC has given him opportunities he never would have had otherwise-like taking the kids to professional sporting events and to a farm where they can pick their own vegetables. He's the only male role model many of them have.
Over the years, much of the drug crowd on Mount View Place has moved away, with new businesses, markets, and homes improving the environment; the presence of CMC and Hawkins' loving but firm discipline has also been influential. Her rule is simple: All children ages 4 to 18 are welcome to the center as long as they don't cuss or fight. If someone violates one of these two commandments, they're sent home until they can apologize. Some kids return after a day of "suspension." For others it takes a little while longer.
Struggling kids don't surprise Hawkins. "I tell them, 'Just 'cause someone has their foot on your throat you can still rise.'" She has seen them rise. Like Sulamian Harris, who earned his bachelor's in engineering. Or Nathan Fleming, who graduated at the top of his class at Morehouse. Or Hakeem Nelson, who is now a police officer in the same neighborhood in which he grew up.
"We've seen [these kids] come from disgrace to grace," she says. She sees this every time a former "child of mine" bumps into her on the street and tells her how much they learned at CMC. She doesn't always recognize them, but they always seem to recognize her.
Although the years of fiery commitment to her children have etched lines across her face, she rarely admits her age. "I've had people try to plan my menu and tell me when to retire, and I don't like that," she says, her voice rising. "I tell them if they can wear my apron, they can wear my job."
The lesson on verbs is drawing to a close as the clock approaches 7 p.m. Hawkins announces a few upcoming activities. Wednesday is a trip to the farmer's market. Thursday is a candlelight vigil. And then there will be a movie night, as long as "they've been in good standing."
Before they leave, children fold their hands, bow their heads, and pray.
-Zoe Sandvig is a writer for Prison Fellowship