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Community minister helps ‘one child at a time’

The Rev. Donald Robinson lauded for 20 years of youth programs at Beacon House.
By Donald E. Skinner

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The Rev. Donald E. Robinson

The Rev. Donald E. Robinson founded Beacon House 20 years ago to help “children who through no fault of their own don’t have the resources to make it on their own.” (Beacon House)

The Rev. Donald E. Robinson had already had a long career helping disadvantaged children in Washington, D.C., when he took on one more gargantuan task.

He didn’t see it as gargantuan. He saw it as helping one child at a time.

In 1991, after more than 30 years of working with Washington youth in juvenile halls and community programs, Robinson founded Beacon House in the Edgewood Terrace neighborhood of Northeast Washington.

The community at that time was plagued by drugs, violence, truancy, and teen pregnancy. Robinson, a Unitarian Universalist minister, set to work making Beacon House into a safe place for children to come after school—a place where they could get something to eat and help with their homework.

Over the years Beacon House was adopted by around 15 area UU congregations.

The founding board was made up entirely of UUs, and over the years UU members have donated countless volunteer hours and holiday gifts, hosted the Beacon House children for special events, and made monetary contributions.

On any given day, Beacon House serves more than 300 children and youth from 5 to 18 years old with tutoring, mentoring, cultural, athletic, recreational, and nutritional programs. Scores of volunteers from urban and suburban congregations work with Beacon House children and youth on a daily and weekly basis.

Beacon House celebrated its 20th anniversary in October with a night of entertainment at the Carnegie Institution for Science, attended by 165 people. It has had other honors this year as well. In February Robinson was named an “Upstander” by the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. The award honors those who “spoke out, did the right thing, and made a difference,” according to the Society website. On Nov. 10 Robinson was awarded $5,000 as a Local Hero from Bank of America for his work. Reverend Robinson immediately donated the money to Beacon House.

And there’s the football team. Last year Beacon House’s Junior Pee Wee football team of 10-and-11-year-olds won the Pop Warner Super Bowl National Championship. This year the team made it to the Super Bowl championship game once again, but lost in double overtime. “Football is what draws many kids in,” says Robinson. “Then they stick around for homework help. By the time they’re in seventh or eighth grade, they’re hooked on school.”

In July an Edgewood neighborhood sports field was named for Robinson. Beacon House was rated “one of the best small charities” in the Washington, D.C., area in the 2010-2011 Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington.

Robinson, a member of All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington for 40 years, attended divinity school at Howard University and was ordained the year before he started Beacon House. Now 73, he reflected on those early days. “The president of the Edgewood Terrace Resident Association wanted me to save her community,” he said. At the time Edgewood was sometimes called “little Beirut” for drug use and violence.

Robinson didn’t need much convincing. “Because I’d worked in these neighborhoods so long I knew the circumstances these kids were in. I knew that their only hope was education. Many kids were elementary school dropouts. They’d come to school in the morning and stay long enough to get lunch, then would leave.

“Beacon House started by helping kids with homework after school, and providing a snack,” he said. A meal program and a sports program were added, as well as other after-school activities. It worked, he said. “Now 99 percent of our kids finish high school. Many end up going to college or vocational school. We teach them that if they go to school they can be a carpenter, schoolteacher, doctor, lawyer, engineer, and so on. They can become responsible people in society.

“This is not a job to me,” he added. “It’s what I want to do, help children who through no fault of their own don’t have the resources to make it on their own.”

The biggest challenge for Beacon House is “always money,” he said. “All across this country we know how to save the children in our communities. We just need to provide the services and activities that will draw them in. If I had the resources to build a community center to show people what we could really do here, we could serve so many more kids. It’s so much better to build a community center than a juvenile jail. If there were more places kids could do homework and play sports we could close some prisons.”

Not long after Beacon House opened, Robinson addressed the UU Church of Arlington, Va. Gerry Kittner was there that Sunday. The following day he came down to volunteer. Now he’s the deputy director of Beacon House. “These kids have so many obstacles to overcome,” he said. “I love this work because it’s direct service. Every single day we’re getting kids to do their homework, teaching values, and how to navigate the world. We’re helping one child at a time and it works.”

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