Hands-On Help

By Emily Gold Boutilier / January / February 2005
May 3rd, 2007

Children dodge broken glass on the baseball field. The plumbing  in the girl’s bathroom doesn’t work. Green water stains streak  the walls.


Welcome to public school in our nation’s capital.

“It’s just not fair,” says Jacquelyn Davis, a second-year law  student at Georgetown. “Kids are influenced by their learning  environment. If it doesn’t look enticing or inviting, they can’t  do as well.”

Six years ago, Davis cofounded Hands on D.C., an event that one  Saturday each spring sends 3,000 volunteers to spruce up Washington,  D.C., public schools. The group now repairs about fifty schools  annually and has raised $300,000 in college scholarships.

Davis dreamed up Hands on D.C. after reading startling news about  crumbling city schools and pre-teens who plan their own funerals.  “It struck me,” Davis recalls, “that they must have no hope.”  One day, while stopped at a traffic light on her way to work,  Davis watched a group of young African Americans walking to school  accompanied by a police officer. She wondered, “What must it be  like to grow up in a place where you worry you might have a funeral instead of a prom?”

She called friends, who called their friends, and a few weeks  later the Hands on D.C. organizing committee was born. To this  day, the program is run entirely by volunteers. The “work-a-thon”  involves such tasks as carpeting libraries, covering peeling paint,  picking debris from playgrounds, and trimming overgrown athletic  fields. “I think it’s important,” Davis says, “for kids to see,  when they walk into school on Monday morning, that all the walls  are really white. They’ll know they haven’t been forgotten.” Volunteers  also raise money for scholarships that have helped send more than  sixty city students to college, Davis says.

This year Davis spent her day at Ballou High School, where she  also teaches a class called Street Law, which is aimed at helping  adolescents learn everything from criminal law to constitutional  rights. The school is just ten minutes from the U.S. Capitol,  yet until Davis organized a field trip, only two of her fifteen students had been there. What’s more, she adds, some were actually  shocked to learn that there are African-American legislators.

 Critics charge that as a one-day event Hands on D.C does not have  a real effect. “The impact is much greater than one day,” counters  Davis, citing examples of volunteers who end up working on other  city projects. Another lasting benefit, she adds, comes from bringing  white-collar workers into Washington’s poorest areas, thereby  breaking down a “barrier of fear.”

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January / February 2005