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Building a Beacon
For 24 years, Reverend Don Robinson worked as a teacher. He taught in the Washington, D.C. public schools, in a juvenile jail, and later as a community youth counselor who helped families in their neighborhoods. During that time, he saw children who dropped out of school, some as early as elementary school. From the day they started first grade, some children in the community were already years behind the other students. Some children's parents could not read and write, and thus could not help their children with schoolwork. Many of the parents had additional challenges that limited their ability to help their children. Reverend Robinson saw teenage girls drop out of school to have babies, who then grew up and dropped out of school, too. He saw teenage boys selling drugs because it was the only way they knew to get money for their families. He saw that these children needed help that many of their parents and schools could not provide. He decided that an after-school study program, with adults to be mentors and help with school work, could make a big difference.
Reverend Robinson knew he would be better received in the inner-city community where he wanted to begin this program if he was a minister; so he went to seminary and became a Unitarian Universalist minister. But he didn't want to be the kind of minister who serves a congregation. All along, he knew he wanted to be the kind of minister who does not speak from a pulpit, but instead starts programs to help the community. Being a minister meant that in addition to leading an after-school program, he could officiate at weddings, funerals, and child dedications. He could be someone for people of all ages to come to when they needed to talk about their feelings or figure out a way to solve a problem.
After he became a minister, Reverend Robinson began walking around areas of northeast Washington, D.C. looking for a community in need of a program like the one he wanted to build. One day, he ran into a policeman whose daughters he had helped to get into a summer camp program. Reverend Robinson explained to his friend what kind of after-school program he had mind. The policeman told Reverend Robinson about space in the Edgewood Terrace neighborhood. So, he talked to the folks that were already sharing the space, and they decided he was welcome.
Finally, the project was underway. Unitarian Universalists began coming to volunteer. They decided to name the after-school program "Beacon House Community Ministry, Inc." because they wanted the program to be like a lighthouse that would lead young people to a safe space where they could get help preparing for life.
People from the UU Church of Rockville, Maryland came to Beacon House and did arts and crafts programs with the children. They helped with homework and wrote checks to support the program. Soon, other UUs became aware of the program, including a community organizer, Bob Johnsen, who helped to get more people involved. Soon after the program started, Reverend Robinson met Ms. Rogerline Nicholson, a long-time neighborhood resident. She was president of the Tenants Association at Edgewood Terrace. She wanted to improve her community for the children and all her neighbors, just like Reverend Robinson. The two became partners in the project and the rest is history.
Community programs may sound good, but to be good, and do good, the organizers need to listen to the concerns of community members. The residents let Reverend Robinson and Ms. Nicholson know they wanted sports and enrichment programs as well as the tutoring and mentoring programs.
The Rockville UUs and Bob Johnsen involved more UUs with Beacon House, and Ms. Nicholson got other people living in the community involved. It wasn't always easy. UUs who were used to planning projects the way they thought was best had to learn to listen to what members of the Edgewood Terrace wanted, rather than just moving forward with their own ideas. Together they all worked to make Beacon House the kind of program Reverend Robinson had dreamed of creating. At Beacon House, more than 600 children each year have gotten homework help, or a chance to play sports or eat a good meal or meet with a mentor or just to have fun. Beacon House successfully brought very different groups together for the good of the children. These groups included people of different ethnicities, income levels, educational levels, and ages. People who might never have even talked with one another learned to listen to each other with open minds and hearts.