News & Politics

Washingtonians of the Year 2007: Betty Jo Gaines

For 36 years, The Washingtonian has honored men and women who give their time and talents to make this a better place for all of us. They find ways to enrich the lives of everyone they touch.

Photograph by Matthew Worden

The three-year-old arrived in August at Bright Beginnings, a free, nonprofit childcare center devoted to the District’s homeless.

Traumatized, the boy kicked, yelled, and cursed for months.

Executive director Betty Jo Gaines and her staff planned a consistent, calm, and supportive approach. In November, she saw the boy stop kicking when a teacher asked him to—then ask politely for his lunch and eat it in peace.

Little victories are everyday validation for Gaines, who has spent 40 years serving District residents. In her seven years with Bright Beginnings, she has won its accreditation, raised staff qualifications, expanded its hours (to 161⁄2 a day), and doubled its budget.

Serving 181 children citywide just north of Capitol Hill, Bright Beginnings screens for hearing, speech, and developmental delays; has a social worker meet with every family; and offers parenting classes, literacy training, support groups, diapers, transportation, and referrals to everything from legal help and food banks to healthcare and job training. Its curriculum is proven to work with children in unsettling conditions.

Gaines, who started the childcare program of DC’s Department of Parks and Recreation, plans to expand east of the Anacostia River; the waiting list just for ages three and under is 45 children. “We turn families away every day for lack of space,” she says. “Our children deserve better.”