News & Politics

Think Small: Great Washington Area Charities

Want to make a year-end donation that’ll make a difference? These local charities may not be big, but they’re making a big splash.

Want to help your community with a year-end donation? Maybe you can help someone escape poverty, learn English, move toward homeownership, or gain job skills. Your gift might beautify a blighted area or inspire artistic expression. To find nonprofits that can best use a donation, we vetted many groups with foundations and charity watchdogs. We came up with a dozen small local charities that have earned praise for both effectiveness and efficiency.

Not that larger nonprofits don’t do great work. Since 1974, the United Way of the National Capital Area has coordinated one of the nation’s largest annual campaigns. In its last cycle, it distributed nearly $36 million to almost 900 area nonprofits. Popular and well-regarded big nonprofits include Children’s National Medical Center, the Salvation Army, Ronald McDonald House Charities, and Catholic Charities USA.

Here we highlight small charities that aren’t so well known. “They simply don’t have the capacity to serve the people they serve and do the marketing, publicity, and outreach that larger organizations typically do,” says Barbara Harman of the Harman Family Foundation and founder of the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington, which annually profiles and recommends Washington-area nonprofits. “Being small may be a liability as they try to get the word out, but it is a great strength when they are responding to a specific need in the community.”

Julie Rogers, president of the Meyer Foundation, adds: “Giving to these smaller groups can make a large impact in improving the lives of people in need.”Ascensions Psychological and Community Services

Stable, healthy people make for stable, healthy families and neighborhoods. That’s the idea behind Ascensions, which works in a federally designated “health-provider-shortage area,” the District’s Wards 7 and 8, east of the Anacostia River.

To combat child abuse, drug abuse, delinquency, and despair, Ascensions provides counseling; marriage, parenting, and grief support groups; student-dropout prevention; and mental-health care through community centers, churches, schools, and its own community clinic. Services, focused on what it calls “holistic intervention,” are free or discounted.

“Anger and depression can cause drug use, domestic violence, school failure, and so much more,” says founder Satira Streeter. “I’m the only licensed clinical psychologist east of the river.”

1526 Howard Rd., SE, DC 20020; 202-399-6281;

Carlos Rosario International Career Center and Public Charter School

In DC’s Columbia Heights melting pot, Carlos Rosario helps immigrants areawide get the education and job leads they need to move into steady work with good pay. Its programs for citizenship, family literacy, and career development complement the school’s training in English, technology, culinary work, and more.

The public school—the nation’s first chartered for adult education—has won awards for literacy improvement and for the number of learners who have gained and kept employment. “My life changed tremendously,” says an immigrant who went from busboy to banker. “I’ll never forget the school staff’s hard work, support, love, and help toward my goals.”

1100 Harvard St., NW, DC 20009; 202-797-4700;

College Access Fairfax

Fairfax County has plenty of promising high-school students whose families can’t afford college. Financial-aid forms are complex even for those whose English is good. Enter College Access Fairfax, whose 12 staff members and volunteers guide students through the maze of scholarships and aid.

“The standard application for financial aid has about 102 questions,” says executive director Christian Braunlich. “It’s more complicated than IRS’s 1040.” Students most in need, Braunlich says, are often those whose “family puts the application on a shelf, and then the student is at risk of never getting to college.”

8115 Gatehouse Rd., Suite 1512, Falls Church 22042; 703-922-6768;

Computer CORE (Community OutReach and Education)

These days, if you can’t operate a computer, it’s tough to get a good job at good pay. Computer CORE gives low-income Northern Virginians the skills they need—in software, hardware, and career development—and builds confidence along with competence. Graduates of the $150, six-month training program even get a computer to take home.

Volunteer instructors have trained more than 500 people—from parolees to immigrants with advanced degrees from overseas—whose new skills lead to better income and community ties. “It’s so exciting to see cashiers and taxi drivers go on to new jobs or promotions or start their own business,” says founder Deb Roepke.

3846 King St., Alexandria 22302; 703-931-7346;

First Book

“I cannot live without books,” Thomas Jefferson said. The people behind this 15-year-old nonprofit agree. It has given 55 million books to children nationwide through preschool, afterschool, and library- and shelter-based programs. The average grant is a book a month per child for at least a year—used in the curriculum, then taken home to keep.

First Book, which works with more than 560 Washington programs, distributed 225,000 new books locally over the past two years alone. “First Book’s goal is not just to fight illiteracy but to end it,” says president Kyle Zimmer. “A steady diet of books changes lives.”

1319 F St., NW, Suite 1000, DC 20004; 202-393-1222;

Gateway Community Development Corporation

About seven years ago, residents of Mount Rainier, Brentwood, and North Brentwood met to talk about rejuvenating their Route 1 community. “Our outstanding asset was the arts and artists,” says executive director Nick Francis, “so we’ve used the arts to do economic restructuring along a national highway.”

The Gateway Arts District, a $70-million public-private investment, includes the Brentwood Arts Center and a planned Prince George’s County African-American Cultural Center with museum, auditorium, and sculpture garden. The group also is developing 100 affordable units of artist housing and studio space, brings performers into local schools, and sponsors a kids’ camp for peace. Results: higher property values, new residents, and a more cohesive community.

PO Box 306, Mount Rainier 20712; 301-864-3860;

Greenbrier Learning Center

At-risk children need structure and support to thrive. In South Arlington, Greenbrier Learning Center’s three locations and summer camp provide these kids with after-school homework and reading help, computer tutoring, study skills, and community service.

Starting in middle school, the center adds leadership training and preparation for college and career. Teens learn from life-skills workshops, internships, and field trips to National Geographic Explorers Hall. Workshops for parents cover nutrition, financial planning, and gang prevention.

“We’re trying to emphasize interaction of the age groups,” says director of programs Lauren Cranman. “The older kids get so much out of helping the younger ones, who look up to them.”

5401 S. Seventh Rd., Arlington 22204; 703-379-6488;


With extended families often spread out across the country, children and older adults may have little opportunity to learn from one another and share happy experiences. Interages trains senior citizens to tutor and mentor at-risk youngsters, including immigrant children and cosmetology students at Silver Spring’s Thomas Edison High School of Technology; these students in turn give makeovers to participants in nearby senior daycare and housing.

A national model for intergenerational programs, Interages also helps many Montgomery County organizations promote interaction between seniors and children—thereby countering isolation, raising self-esteem, and expanding worldviews. “I always thought seniors were dumb or not easy to talk to,” one student wrote, “but I’ve found that they could be the most interesting people to know.”

3950 Ferrara Dr., Wheaton 20906; 301-949-3551;

Our Place DC

What happens to women who, after their time in jail, suddenly need housing, a job, and family support? “If nobody is there to help them, that leaves the door open for them to go right back out and do the same thing,” says a former inmate.

Our Place DC arranges visits from relatives to strengthen community ties for women prisoners and prepares them for the outside world. Its support center helps former prisoners with housing and job leads, clothing, legal services, support groups, counseling, and medical aid. There’s also emergency transitional shelter for those who are HIV-positive and homeless.

“Far more women are in prison than ever before—many far from home,” says founder Susan Galbraith. “There are so many barriers to getting reconnected. We fill that gap.”

801 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Suite 460, DC 20003; 202-548-2400;

Primary Care Coalition of Montgomery County

Montgomery County has 80,000 to 100,000 low-income, uninsured children and adults. Largely with county funds, this nonprofit works to increase their access to healthcare—from more than 35 primary-care sites to specialty care to free prescriptions. Partners in this effort include area universities, hospitals, ethnic organizations, and independent clinic organizations.

Last year, the coalition made possible more than 42,000 office visits and more than $1.5 million worth of free or low-cost medications. Services, available in several languages, include programs for abused and neglected children and for the homeless. “We knit together public and private organizations because uninsured people get sicker and die sooner than others,” says executive director Steve Galen. “People have a right to healthcare, and you can’t have a productive community without it.”

8757 Georgia Ave., Tenth Floor, Silver Spring 20910; 301-628-3425;

Senior Services of Alexandria

SSA makes it easier to be elderly. In the past year, it arranged 59,000 discounted rides for disabled users and 13,600 discounted rides just to medical appointments and grocery stores for any seniors. It also delivered nearly 46,000 meals and helped organize finances and bills. And its original mission continues: to help seniors with job discrimination and employment problems.

“As long as this organization exists, the senior population of Alexandria will never go hungry and will always have a ride,” says executive director Janet Barnett. “And it brings comfort to family members to know their loved one is being cared for.”

700 Princess St., Alexandria 22314; 703-836-4414;

Washington Youth Choir

Achieve, entertain, and get a boost toward college, too? The 50 teens in the Washington Youth Choir do it all. Three afternoons a week, they rehearse choral music for nationally televised performances and work with advisers and mentors on college preparation. Graduating seniors earn scholarships of up to $4,000; since 1989, 204 members have won aid.

Though 60 percent of singers come from District high schools, the choir draws from as far away as Fairfax and Prince George’s counties. “Numerous studies show how the arts can develop students’ academic skills,” says executive director Megan Cheek. This year all seniors graduated, and 92 percent went on to college.

733 Eighth St., NW, DC 20001; 202-293-7508;