Many Catalogue cheers for Steve Park, Executive Director of Little Lights Urban Ministries! Dedicated to the children of the Potomac Gardens public housing complex in Ward 6, Little Lights provides homework help, SAT practice, after-school activities, and Camp Heaven in the summer — and it all works. Last year, 100% of their students stayed in school.
1. What was your most interesting recent project, initiative, partnership, or event?
Just this week, we opened up our Little Lights Family Center located right on the grounds of Potomac Gardens Public Housing in Capitol Hill. We fully renovated a dilapidated apartment unit into a high-tech computer lab and resource/employment center. We will also be providing adult education classes and workshops in the space as well. We have also even agreed with the principal of the nearby elementary school to have some office hours in our space to do outreach to the parents.
2. What else are you up to?
We are constantly trying to find ways to improve our children and youth programming. We have upped the incentives for our middle school students to bring in and finish homework because that has been a challenge. We have added music lessons to our elementary programs and two students were selected to get additional one-on-one lessons.
3. Is there a moment, person, or event that inspired you to do this particular work?
I was volunteering at a summer day camp in a neighborhood where my parents own a small business in NW. There was a child named Darrell who was 13 and could not read a Dr. Seuss book. I was really heartbroken knowing how difficult his future was going to be. He was one of the inspirations for starting Little Lights.
4. Who is your hero in the nonprofit/philanthropy world?
There is a community saint named John Perkins in Mississippi. He was nearly beaten to death by racist police in Mississippi in the early ’70s. He was able to practice the freedom of forgiveness and?committed his life to help families in need in Jackson and has inspired many others to do likewise all across the country. He is a founder of an association called the Christian Community Development Association. I am about to visit his non-profit for the first time next week!
5. What is the single greatest (and non-financial) challenge to the work that you do every day?
I think the greatest challenge is to break through some of the destructive patterns in teens and pre-teens that are influenced by negative peer pressure. Trying to get pre-teens to take academics seriously in an environment like Potomac Gardens is a huge challenge. We need to constantly help them connect the dots why doing homework is important and to think long-term about their future.
6. What advice do you have for other people who want to work in your field?
I think persistence and commitment are so important if you want to see change. I often think of the proverb: In the battle between the river and the rock, the river will always win, not because the river is stronger, but because it is persistent.
7. What’s next?
I personally want to keep growing as a person and a leader. I don’t want to get cynical and just consider what I do a job. I want to maintain my passion even as I gain experience and skills. In terms of the organization, I want to be able to pay our staff better and keep them longer. We want to keep improving existing programs and launch the Family Center to be a vibrant place where adults at Potomac Gardens and in the surrounding neighborhood get access great resources and find employment, skills, and wisdom they otherwise they would not have received. Ultimately, I want to see people find hope.
EXTRA: If you could have a power breakfast with any three people who would they be?
Martin Luther King Jr.
St. Francis of Assisi