Capitol Hill Community Foundation meets the Pandemic

Local hard-hit organizations are receiving CHCF support

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Little Lights tutors have stepped in to help with supervised virtual learning. Photo: Courtesy Little Lights

How do you meet twice the need with half the resources?  How to you offer financial assistance to organizations facing dramatically changing circumstances without the in-person fundraising events that for years have provided money for hundreds of small grants? That is, more or less, the situation being faced by the Capitol Hill Community Foundation and other organizations as the neighborhood copes with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In late March Foundation president Nicky Cymrot realized that emerging consensus around the virus meant that 250 people could not safely gather for the annual Capitol Hill Community Achievement Awards dinner that has for many years been the Foundation’s largest fundraiser. The event was cancelled.

This fall the popular Literary Feasts that normally raise $40,000 to underwrite grants to local public schools were replaced by a Pumpkin Walk — an invitation to create decorations inspired by books and then to vote for a favorite. The result was 40 homes and yards decorated with witches from Macbeth, spiders from Charlotte’s Web, a skeletal Dorothy and Toto from the Wizard of Oz and other spooky sights.  It was lots of fun, but it didn’t raise any money.

In spite of this, the Foundation was able to make its usual spring grants and, in May, to augment them with special grants totaling $100,000. This was possible because as Cymrot said, “Every single person who had bought tickets to the dinner that we had to cancel left their contributions and pledges in place.”

The special grants went to five organizations Cymrot calls “anchors” of the community – CHAMPS (the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals), Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital, Everyone Home DC (formerly Capitol Hill Group Ministry), Little Lights and Serve your City, all organizations with which the Foundation has strong, ongoing relationships.

Everyone Home DC
“I was stunned,” says Karen Cunningham, Executive Director of Everyone Home DC of her reaction to news of the special grant. “It said that we trust you in this uncertain time.” Because the homeless and housing-insecure population with which her organization works is especially vulnerable to the virus, every aspect of what they do had to change with the pandemic. The day hospitality center at Shirley’s Place that had been offering a place to do laundry, to take showers, to use computers was shut down by the city (though it is now partially reopened). Cunningham had to manage an increased and changing work load and plan for what she fears may be drastically increased need this winter.

Serve Your City/Ward 6 Mutual Aid
Serve Your City had for years been providing after-school and weekend enrichment for underserved young people, activities like financial literacy classes, tennis and rowing. Founder Maurice Cook says that Covid has “shined a flashlight” on deeper needs in the community – the lack of adequate access to the technology and skills needed for virtual schooling as well as more basic needs like food.  Building on his connections in the community, Maurice has turned Serve Your City into the lead partner in the newly formed Ward 6 Mutual Aid.  The special grant from the Foundation allowed him to begin to distribute large amounts of school supplies, food and household items, storing them in space provided by the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. He sees tremendous, increasing need especially as winter approaches and tent encampments continue to grow.

Little Lights
The early summer brought not just the cancellation of events and uncertainty about the future course of the virus, but the crisis that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Little Lights, a long-established organization bringing tutoring, mentoring and a host of other services to residents of public housing on Capitol Hill, had responded to the pandemic by stepping up its partnership with the DC Food Bank, enabling it to bring ready-to-go meals for distribution at Potomac Gardens and Hopkins apartments. But Little Lights also saw hugely increased interest in the “Race Literacy 101” class it had been offering to the public for several years.  The in-person series of classes scheduled to begin in June with 30 participants had to be cancelled.  The virtual version that replaced it has been extremely popular with over a hundred participants in the first ten-week session and the upcoming session sold out with 150 people, some from foreign countries, signed up.  The course is a mixture of small group discussions, videos and reading about historical events and current concerns like mass incarceration, and with a focus on the spiritual aspects of racial reconciliation.

Hill Center Goes Virtual
Hill Center Executive Director Diana Ingraham says of the emergency grant from the Foundation in the spring that it “saved our bacon.” In mid-March, the city ordered the closing of public places and cancellation of large events which immediately shut off the earned income the Center has relied on to cover operating expenses.  But the grant from the Foundation, followed in June by a payment from the federal Payroll Protection Program, allowed Ingraham to keep paying longtime staff members.  A combination of other grants from DC and federal programs, and a lot of careful planning, has allowed Hill Center to develop new ways of doing things. Ingraham says that the last in-person art show opening, last February, brought 400 people to Hill the Center. The newest art show is entirely on line as was the very popular annual fall pottery show.  And virtual cooking classes have been very successful.  30 people recently learned to make pastry with only the chef actually in Hill Center’s demonstration kitchen. So, while it has been demanding to adjust to the needs created by the pandemic, Ingraham is confident that “we WILL get through this.”

Spring Grants top $220,000
This fall, holding meetings via Zoom, pulling in recommendations from 15 dedicated grants committee members, digging deep into dwindling financial reserves while expressing confidence in the results of its upcoming annual end-of-year fundraising appeal, the Foundation gave away $220,000. This was the second largest batch of seasonal grants ever.

The grants went to many of its usual grantees as well as going to some endeavors made timely by the pandemic and a renewed focus on improving racial understanding – hypothermia supplies for Everyone Home DC, on-line performances from the Capitol Hill Chorale, REACH’s program to pay Eastern High School students to tutor elementary school kids on-line, parent discussion groups at local schools facilitated by Kindred, increased support for Little Lights’ racial literacy class.  “I am always pleasantly surprised,” says grants committee chairman Mark Weinheimer, “that there are so many organizations doing interesting, imaginative and productive work in our community.”

Board President Nicky Cymrot echoes his thought and says, “Of course, we can only do this because of the extraordinary generosity of people in this community.” She then adds, almost as an aside, the astonishing fact that since its founding thirty years ago, the Capitol Hill Community Foundation has given away $9.5 million, money raised almost entirely from local residents and businesses. “People here,” she says, “tend to be generous and they tend to care about their neighbors.”

As if in confirmation of this confidence, Karen Cunningham reports that with just on-line and word of mouth fundraising, Everyone Home DC met its goal of being able to provide 150 families with grocery store gift cards for Thanksgiving.

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Give Locally
Opportunities for end of year donations may be found at: www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.com; www.everyonehomedc.org; www.serveyourcitydc.org; www.littlelights.org; www.hillcenterdc.org.