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A Day in the Volunteer Life: Anacostia Watershed Society

An innovative, environmentally-friendly workout idea: cleaning up a garbage-bag-worth of cigarette butts. A single butt only weighs about 1 gram, but once you pick up hundreds of them, they start to add up to some serious bicep strengthening. That’s how I celebrated Earth Day 2019 with the Anacostia Watershed Society on April 13th.

As a fellow with Catalogue for Philanthropy, I have the honor of working with and learning about over 400 locally-based nonprofits in the Greater Washington Region. So when my school’s community service committee asked me to arrange a volunteer opportunity for myself and other American University students for Earth Day, I knew where to look. Time to join the #Trashtag Challenge!


Anacostia Watershed Society’s annual event engages nearly 2000 volunteers for 44 sites around the Anacostia River. My site’s neighborhood in Anacostia was not directly next to the river but in the river’s wider watershed area; whenever it rains, all of the trash in the residential area flows into the river, hurting wildlife and the ecosystem.

Fellow volunteers and I met at We Act Radio Station, a hip local institution and de facto community center. I sat among piles of books from their ongoing book drive. We were welcomed by Stacy and Aroni, two friendly and enthusiastic Anacostia Watershed Society staff members and our team leaders for the day. They gave us gloves to protect our hands, picker-uppers to prevent back strain, and matching t-shirts to look cool and groovy.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning to go for a stroll and pick up garbage. We made a circle around several blocks, carrying a blue bag for recyclables and a white bag for general trash. About 70% of what I picked up were cigarette butts. In public discourse, we acknowledge how cigarettes choke our bodies, but not enough about how they choke the environment too. What made me saddest were butts littered on the ground not 3 feet away from public trash cans.
It was rewarding work. Quite a few residents stopped to thank us and a few even added some trash to my bag. I was pleased too by how social it was; the steady and relaxing pace of our walk through the neighborhood easily facilitated conversations with new and interesting people. Our crew even had a beauty queen! If you want to meet new people, explore a new neighborhood, and make a difference in the environment, I strongly recommend signing up for clean up events. There’s no better way to celebrate the new springtime weather with friends than going and picking up a bag of butts.


Written by Nancy Erickson, Nonprofit Programs Fellow at the Catalogue for Philanthropy

Stimulating Change: LearnServe International’s 4th Annual Panels and Venture Fair

The Figuring Out College Success team after their big win at LearnServe's 4th Annual Panels and Venture Fair

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

This past Thursday, I had the pleasure of being a judge at LearnServe International’s 4th Annual Panels and Venture Fair at the School Without Walls. LearnServe International empowers high-school students from around the DC area who have the motivation (but perhaps not the means) to make a difference. Through their Fellows Program, LearnServe helps guide students through the creation of their own “social venture.” This year’s Venture Fair featured 60 young entrepreneurs who represented 30 high schools in 4 different counties. What do all of these young entrepreneurial minds have in common? They all helped to design 45 different social ventures with the goal of serving their schools and their communities.

In the cafeteria of the School Without Walls, LearnServe fellows set up their presentation boards and prepared to discuss their ideas with leaders from both the business and community worlds. Students were split into 4 groups: DC Public and Charter Schools/PG County Public Schools, Montgomery County Public Schools, Fairfax County Public Schools, and Independent Schools. Students were judged based on three different categories: innovative ideas, presentation boards, and their venture pitch. Awards were presented to the one group from each category that received the overall high score from the judges. Winners won a certificate, a book, and a pro-bono consulting service session with business leaders from different companies in the area.

As a judge, I reviewed five different ventures, each one as impressive as the next. It was extremely inspiring to see high school students who were all so motivated to make changes within their communities and beyond. Of all the ventures, one group that I judged not only caught my eye, but had the highest score in their geographic region, and therefore, won. Figuring Out College Success (FOCS) is a venture started by Nancy, Zora, Yousef, and Spencer, all sophomore students, with a goal of making the college preparation and application process easier for students. Whether they are students from international backgrounds, working class families, or first-generation college goers, the mission of FOCS is to help effectively transform the frustration and discouragement of the unknown into motivation to pursue the college path. As four young students who have not yet been through the college preparation or application process yet, their goals proved to be one of the most impressive portions of their venture proposal.

  • increase enrollment in Honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes by 10%
  • ensure participants, by mid freshman year, have a developed relationship with their counselor and have a plethora of extracurricular activities under their belt
  • have participants by mid sophomore year create a pool of teachers for recommendations
  • have junior year participants who by their second semester have a full resume and have visited multiple 4-year institutions up the East Coast
  • ensure that by senior year participants have applied to multiple colleges and have set up permanent financial plans for the school they’ll be attending

As a first time judge for the LearnServe Venture Fair, I was blown away by the original and transformative ideas that these young people had come up with. It’s refreshing to see so many young people willing (and able) to change the world, and LearnServe provides them with a great platform to do so. Congratulations to all of the winners, the participants, and everyone at LearnServe who helped to put on an extremely stimulating event. To learn more about LearnServe International and all of the programs that they provide, click here.

From the Field: Higher Achievement

by Marie LeBlanc, Community Partnerships Coordinator

A few weeks ago, I blogged about volunteering with a Catalogue nonprofit, , that encourages incarcerated young men to find their artistic voice and express themselves through poetry. This week, Catalogue’s Sherika Brooks and I had the privilege of not only spending another night immersed in Free Minds’ students’ poetry, but also celebrating the poetic achievements of another Catalogue nonprofits’ scholars. Higher Achievement, a rigorous after school and summer program for students in at-risk communities, hosted its annual Literary Love Poetry Performance on Monday, February 25th.

The event was a celebration of Higher Achievement’s work, but most importantly, a celebration of their middle school scholars’ writing from the past few months. After reading and exploring the work of well-known authors and poets, scholars wrote their own poems on the theme of love. A dozen students from Higher Achievement achievement centers across the DC Metro area were chosen as finalists and given the opportunity to perform their poems on stage at the Lansburgh Theatre.

If I hadn’t learned this lesson from Free Minds before, Monday night’s performances demonstrated once again that an inner poet resides in everyone. Students shared and declared their love for a range of things — from life, love, and Mom and Dad, to football and Queen Latifah. The overall message? Everyone loves — loves deeply and for real, regardless of education level, gender, class or age.

The talent, creativity, and bravery of the twelve students who performed Monday night showed the value of Higher Achievement’s program in their lives — on both their educational paths and personal development. During the program, Higher Achievement talked about the world it envisions, one where “all students’ potential and promise are realized, regardless of their circumstances.” I could not help but think, watching twelve mature and inspiring students take the stage and talk about love, that hundreds and thousands of other students wait in the wings for their turn to take the stage, and take advantage of opportunities that are yet out of reach.

Higher Achievement is always looking for more champions to show their love and share their vision — for more information on donating, volunteering or supporting the organization in other ways, check out Higher Achievement’s Catalogue page here. For more info on other Catalogue nonprofits working to improve the educational opportunities for youth in our area, check out the online Catalogue here.

From the Field: Safe Shores

by Sherika Brooks, Executive Assistant to the President

“Safety and security don’t just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.” -Nelson Mandela

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, DC ranks highest in the rate of child abuse per capita in the nation. That means that in the District alone, 24.6 children per 1,000 are victimized annually. The national average? 10.0 per 1,000. These sobering and heartbreaking statistics clearly illustrate how important it is to have services that can help the children and families who are affected by this abuse.

Enter Safe Shores-The DC Children’s Advocacy Center. Safe Shores is a Catalogue nonprofit that provides intervention, hope, and healing for children and families that are affected by abuse and violence in DC. Last week, Community Partnerships Coordinator, Marie LeBlanc, and I attended Coffee for Kids, an informational tour of the Safe Shores facility right outside of the NoMa neighborhood in Washington, DC. Situated in a former school building, Safe Shores has created an environment for kids and their families to feel supported, comfortable, and most importantly, safe.

Prior to Safe Shores, the investigative and legal process for child abuse cases in the District could be just as traumatizing for a child as the abuse itself. Forcing a child to be interviewed separately by police, social workers, medical professionals, prosecutors, and a different selection of court personnel can leave a child feeling more like the perpetrator than the victim. Safe Shores helps to eliminate these different interviews by housing interview rooms complete with in-wall cameras and microphones that produce a live feed to the room next door, as well as recording the interview. The live feed/recorded video allows for members of DC’s Multidisciplinary Team which includes the Metropolitan Police Department, Child and Family Services, Children’s National Medical Center, the Office of the Attorney General, and the United States Attorney’s Office to watch and have access to the video instead of subjecting the child to multiple interviews. Safe Shores also provides victims and their families with resources such as counseling, art therapy, medical checkups, and victim services such as a clothing closet (complete with toys) and a meal fund to cover the cost of food to children who are on site for interviews, therapy, or awaiting court sessions.

As an adult, walking into Safe Shores, touring their amazing facility, and hearing their staff talk about what they do reminded me that, unfortunately, abuse can happen to anyone. The staff members give the same amount of care to the children that walk into the center’s front doors as they would their own children–which says a lot about this amazing program and their dedicated staff (who are on call 24/7–because abuse can happen anytime). The Catalogue for Philanthropy and the Greater Washington area are lucky to have Safe Shores as part of our community and we are so grateful for all of the hard work that you do.

If you are interested in attending a Coffee for Kids session, volunteering with, or just learning more about Safe Shores-The DC Children’s Advocacy Center, check out their website.

From the Field: Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop

By Marie LeBlanc, Community Partnerships Coordinator

Many great individuals have written about the power of a free mind — authors, scientists, philosophers, musicians. Perhaps none have written quite as eloquently as the young poets who work with . Free Minds, a Catalogue nonprofit for the past five years, “serves 16 and 17 year old youths who have been charged and incarcerated as adults at the DC Jail. Free Minds uses books and creative writing to empower young inmates to transform their lives.”

This week, I had the privilege of reading and commenting on poems written by Free Minds poets at Volunteer Write Night — a monthly event in which Free Minds staff, members, and volunteers meet to mingle, read inmates’ poetry and offer their own personal feedback. The poems, with comments, are then mailed back to their authors, and provide a bright spot of both artistic feedback and communication with the outside world for those who are currently removed from it.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but was blown away by the maturity, honesty, and emotional depth expressed in Free Minds’ poetry. The poems touched on every range of emotions related to their experience in the system — from missing a girlfriend or family members, to the hurt, frustration, and loneliness that comes with time spent in jail. While I cannot relate to all of the poets’ experiences, I can relate to their responses — after all, who hasn’t experienced pain, hurt, or despair at one time in their life?

Overall, I found many poems to be incredibly uplifting and inspirational. The young poets’ words expressed how they became adults in such a short time and learned life lessons the hard way, but have become better people because of it. Bridging the divides of race, class, gender, or legal status and connecting with another person through art — this is a crucial aspect of Free Minds’ program, and Write Night is an incredible volunteer opportunity that fosters those connections.

For those interested in volunteering, Write Night is held on the fourth Tuesday of every month. You can also read poetry written by incarcerated members of Free Minds online at their .




Photos courtesy of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop

From the Field: Miriam’s Kitchen

By Marie LeBlanc, Community Partnerships Coordinator

An early Saturday morning, in a church basement in Foggy Bottom, DC parents bring their children to learn about what it means to be homeless in Washington. Last Saturday, Miriam’s Kitchen hosted Coats and Coffee, an education and awareness event that offered kids the chance to do service around the “kitchen” while also learning about the clients that Miriam’s serves — in an age-appropriate way. Sherika Brooks and I stopped by to drop off our donations of coffee (Miriam’s goes through thousands of cups a week) and learn a bit more about the services they offer.

Miriam’s Kitchen is unique among nonprofits offering outreach services for those experiencing homelessness. As one of Miriam’s Kitchen’s case managers explained to us, Miriam’s operates first and foremost under the context of hospitality — welcoming clients with a smile and a nametag (whatever that name might be for the day), offering a cup of hot coffee, a freshly prepared meal, and then the option to learn about and access additional services if desired. Relationships are the focus == and meeting clients where they’re at is the method. Another unique aspect of Miriam’s Kitchen program is Miriam’s Studio, an art therapy program that helps to “build a strong community and relationships with their guests.” The products of this program cover the walls of the dining room at Miriam’s Kitchen — beautiful pieces of art that show the diversity of life experiences that Miriam’s guests bring into the space.

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From the Field: Clean Water Rally

By Marie LeBlanc, Community Partnerships Coordinator

Swim, Drink, Fish — Clean Water!

This was the rallying cry at the Rally for Clean Water, held last Saturday, September 15, at the Georgetown Waterfront. The Rally celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, a piece of landmark legislation passed in 1972 that protects and regulates standards for America’s waterways. The event was co-sponsored by Catalogue’s Potomac Riverkeeper, as well as Waterkeeper Alliance, Blue Legacy, Waterkeepers Chesapeake and Earthjustice. Hundreds of community members joined the celebration for the morning paddle, speaker series, and river clean up. We (Marie and Sherika) spent the morning at the Rally, both enjoying the beauty of the Potomac River during the paddle and volunteering during the speaking portion of the rally.

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From the Field: Beautification Day 2012

By Marie LeBlanc, Community Partnerships Coordinator

As yesterday’s blog post reported, this week marks the beginning of a new school year for Washington, DC students. The first day of school is a moment that stands out in most children’s and parent’s lives — one filled with excitement and eagerness, anxiety and nervousness. Since 2005, DCPS Beautification Day has aspired to make that moment a bit more … beautiful for DC’s public school students. For the past seven years, thousands of Washington residents have shown up at their local schools to “spruce up” the facilities in preparation for a new school year. The 2012 Beautification Day took place last week, on August 25, and saw a great turn out of volunteers at 115 different schools. This year, Catalogue nonprofit Hands on DC coordinated 75 volunteers at three schools to “beautify” in a variety of ways — from painting and gardening outside to cleaning and organizing inside.

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From the Field: Bright Beginnings

By Marie LeBlanc, Community Partnerships Coordinator
& Sherika Brooks, Executive Assistant

Yesterday, Sherika and I visited the facilities of Bright Beginnings, a long-time Catalogue nonprofit, for a tour and site visit. Bright Beginnings is a “nationally recognized developmental childcare center for homeless infants, toddlers, and preschoolers that prepares vulnerable children for kindergarten while also helping stabilize their families.” As much as we read about the services provided by nonprofits like Bright Beginnings, the impression made by experiencing their impact first-hand is exponentially greater.

After discussing the needs addressed and services provided by the organization, Director of Development and Communications Joan Woods took our small group on a tour through the campus. One of Bright Beginnings’ unique qualities is the way it reclaims the face of homelessness in the District. The children and families it serves experience homelessness — but after walking into one of their well-equipped classrooms and seeing a group of toddlers playing and laughing together, one would never guess it. Despite the smiles on their faces, children from families experiencing homelessness are much more likely to suffer from hunger, behavioral problems, depression, and other emotional problems than their peers. They also typically enter kindergarten at a lower ‘academic’ level than their classmates. Bright Beginnings works to provide an early intervention to these challenges and allow low-income children to begin school equipped with the same tools for success as other children.

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