Ten locals who are using their experience, smarts, and creativity to help make Washington a better place for everyone.
Elena Delle Donne
Washington Mystics Forward
In 2018, Elena Delle Donne led the Washington Mystics to their first WNBA finals in the franchise’s history. She attributes her “never give up” attitude to her older sister, Lizzie, who is blind and deaf, has cerebral palsy, and is on the autism spectrum. But Delle Donne says Lizzie also has incredible perseverance. Delle Donne’s parents raised her to see her sister as just like anyone else. However, she knew something was different when friends came over and she began to see Lizzie through their eyes. In the decades since, she says, her sister, now 34, has undergone more than 20 surgeries but “manages to get through her day with a smile.”
In 2014, Delle Donne became a Special Olympics global ambassador. Before Mystics games, she meets with Special Olympians and girls’ basketball teams. Her charitable foundation raises money for the organization. But it’s her personal interaction with local Special Olympics athletes that shows her true spirit. While still recovering from a knee injury in a 2018 playoff game, Delle Donne practiced passing with kids and taught them how to spin the ball on two fingers. She also runs basketball camps for girls ages 7 to 15, in which “unified teams” include players with disabilities. The camps aren’t about getting the ball in the basket, Delle Donne says. Friendships are born, and some campers become Special Olympics volunteers.
Of the sister who inspires her, she says: “Lizzie reminds me every day what’s worth fighting for.”
Cofounder and Executive Director, So What Else
A decade ago, Dave Silbert had a personal-training and coaching business but was looking for something more meaningful to do. After a 2009 trip to New Orleans to work on a Habitat for Humanity project, he and his friend Bob Schless came home determined to identify a community need in Washington. Silbert, a Rockville native, had survived tough years in young adulthood thanks to strong family support. He wanted to make a difference for kids who had no such backup. As a volunteer with help from Schless, Silbert began expanding an afterschool program at the Silver Spring Boys & Girls Club. He taught basketball and other sports while recruiting volunteers to teach art, environmental protection, nutrition, and other subjects.
They called their effort So What Else (Can We Do to Help?), to reflect the philosophy that children should “pay it forward,” Silbert says. So What Else kids might make sandwiches for a shelter, pick up trash at parks, or create seed balls for “guerrilla gardening”—planting in unused spaces.
Soon he was getting calls from other Boys & Girls clubs, housing developments, and community centers to bring the program there. So What Else now offers afterschool, school-break, and weekend programs to 3,000-plus children in nearly 55 sites across DC, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, and Baltimore. More than 1,000 kids participate in one-to-four-week summer camps every year. All activities are free to both the youth and the sites hosting them.
Jay Cherokee played on Silbert’s first basketball team at the Silver Spring club. They lost every game, he recalls. But Cherokee—now in the Army, stationed in Havre de Grace, Maryland—says he learned a lasting lesson from Silbert: “The good things you put out in the world are the good things you get back.”
Cofounder and Executive Director, This Is My Brave
Among the thousands of responses Jennifer Marshall received after speaking out about mental illness on her blog, Bipolar Mom Life, one woman’s will stick with her forever: “I found your blog when I was in my darkest moments, and your writing saved my life.”
“That was all I needed to know that what I was doing was making a difference,” says Marshall, a mother of two who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 13 years ago at age 26.
Before her diagnosis, the Ashburn resident was hospitalized four times in five years, including once for postpartum psychosis and another time while pregnant. After receiving treatment, she started her blog anonymously in 2011—a forum that became therapeutic for her as well as others. But she still was hesitant to put a face to her disease: Her family feared she’d be judged or, worse, unemployed. (She was a corporate recruiter at the time.) It wasn’t until an editor for the online pregnancy bible What to Expect When You’re Expecting asked her to contribute that she decided to come forward.
“This is me,” says Marshall. “I don’t want to just talk about everything that’s great in my life. I want to talk about troubles.”
Now she’s helping others end the stigma around mental illness, through her nonprofit, This Is My Brave. The organization—whose motto is “Storytelling saves lives”—helps produce as many as 19 live shows a year in different cities, from LA to Cedar Rapids. The cast comprises about 14 storytellers from each community who share their personal tales—via spoken word, music, and comedy—in a production designed to support as much as it entertains. In the next year, This Is My Brave is launching on the college level as well as introducing a podcast.
“You always see fundraisers for cancer and hear the stories of people going through it,” Marshall says, “but no one celebrates people doing well despite mental illness.”
As for the reader whose comment she can’t forget, last Marshall heard, she’d just had her second child.
Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Fundraiser
“Why are you so selfish?”
Those words changed Don Wood’s life. It was the mid-’90s, and he’d agreed to meet Doris Tulcin, a cofounder of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, at his office at ITT Corporation in Manhattan. His year-old daughter, Rachel, had been born with cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening genetic disease. Tulcin asked Wood to get involved in fundraising, but he balked. His family was private.
Wood remembers Tulcin’s words: “There are 30,000 kids with CF in the United States. You probably have more resources and contacts than 95 percent of other parents. So let me ask again: Why are you so selfish?”
“There’s no comeback to that!” says Wood today in his Rockville office at Federal Realty Investment Trust, where he’s president and CEO. “You have a moral obligation to take some of the benefit that’s been bestowed on you and spread it around. It’s not just financial—it’s emotional and physical. You gotta do stuff all-in.”
Wood moved his family to Washington soon after—in part so Rachel could be close to NIH—and, over the following years, brought in $30 million–plus as fundraiser and chair of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s local chapter. He ran the
Breath of Life gala for more than a decade, and under his lead-
ership it became one of Washington’s largest charitable events. Meanwhile, CFF was making big strides in donations. It pioneered a model of venture philanthropy, providing early-stage funding to small biotech firms and pharmaceutical companies such as Boston’s Vertex, which then de-veloped groundbreaking drugs
for CF. In Rachel’s lifetime—she’s now 23 and a veterinary assistant—the projected life-span for adults with CF has nearly doubled, to almost 40.
Three years ago, Wood slowed his fund-raising efforts, satisfied with the foundation’s monetary—and medical—gains. But there’s still a small subset of CF patients who don’t respond to the drugs: kids of families Wood has worked with for years. So he’s gearing back up, even stealing Tulcin’s line—“Why are you so selfish?”—when he has to.
George Pelecanos has spent a lot of time behind bars. Two decades ago, the author of more than 20 hard-boiled crime novels mostly set in Washington—as well as a creative force behind HBO’s The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce—started working with kids at Oak Hill, DC’s youth detention facility, now called New Beginnings. Then in 2010, Kelli Taylor and Tara Libert invited him to be a guest author at Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, a program they run for young offenders at New Beginnings and DC Jail. Once Pelecanos started, he kept coming back.
“The kids connected immediately,” says Libert. “He really cares about them, and you can’t fake that.” It helps that Pelecanos—a DC native and probably Washington’s most acclaimed novelist—writes about the city he and they know so well. One book-club member told him, “You wrote about my street right down to the light pole.”
Says Pelecanos: “Some of the discussions get really deep, in a poetic way. A lot of truths get unraveled.”
His most recent book, The Man Who Came Uptown, features a character patterned after Danielle Zoller, who runs the DC Jail library. Pelecanos’s sessions with inmates, Zoller says, “are a great way to give them a love of reading, whether it’s a rediscovered pleasure or newly found.”
The author draws from his own life story—working at his father’s diner in Dupont Circle; his affection for soul music; his stints as a dishwasher, bartender, and shoe salesman—as well as his fiction when he speaks in District classrooms as part of the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools Program. Frazier O’Leary was an English teacher at Cardozo high school when he recruited Pelecanos for the program. He believes Pelecanos has a unique ability to reach the city’s young people: “His stories are unfiltered. He is the authentic voice of DC.”
For his part, Pelecanos insists his contributions pale beside those of the librarians and teachers who reach kids and incarcerated adults when they need it most. “Somebody who tells them they have self-worth,” he says. “It’s all about hope.”
Associate Director for Minority Health and Health-Disparities Research, Georgetown University
Many girls who grew up in Southeast DC in the 1950s wanted dolls for Christmas. Lucile Adams-Campbell asked for a chemistry set.
A passion for math and science earned her a place in the engineering program at DC’s McKinley Tech and, later, chemical engineering at Drexel University. But before long, she switched to major in biology—eventually becoming the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in epidemiology. “Chemistry was all pipes and fluid flows,” she says. “I liked the human approach.”
That element is what set Adams-Campbell’s career apart. As a professor at Howard in the early ’90s, she focused on women and minorities because “nobody else was.” In particular, she homed in on higher rates of breast cancer among female African-Americans compared with their white counterparts—a disparity she discovered after initiating the Black Women’s Health Study, which became the most comprehensive report of its kind. Today she’s still working to increase regular mammograms among African-American women in DC and beyond; reduce cancer risk through nutrition, exercise, and oral health; and guarantee minorities access to clinical trials.
Part of her work ethic was molded by adversity. When she was pursuing her doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh in the early ’80s, she says a white male professor—with whom she’d never taken a course—argued she be given only a master’s. Everyone else in her program, from chairman to teachers, disagreed. “It was pure racism,” she says. “The way I overcame that was always making certain that whatever I did, I did it at a higher level than my white counterparts.”
She attributes much of her successful results to working with communities—attending events at black churches and grassroots organizations—and earning trust among a population the medical profession often labels hard to reach. “They’re not hard to reach,” she says. “You just have to go and reach out.”
Founder, Fair Chance
“Here we go again—another one of those do-gooders who’ll be gone in an instant.”
Amanda Marshall could see those thoughts in Mary Brown’s head as soon as she arrived at Life Pieces to Masterpieces, Brown’s arts-and-leadership center for male youth near Anacostia. So Marshall did what she does best: got to work.
She’d started her career in New York City at Ernst & Young, but the woman who’d built a library in a Greensboro, North Carolina, homeless shelter at age 13 had always had a heart for charitable work. She came to Washington in 2002 with a mission: to launch her own nonprofit, Fair Chance. It would partner with small community organizations to help them operate like well-run corporations. Unfortunately, the model was too complex to woo donors—or get return calls.
“I needed people to stick with me, to realize that by investing in me, they’re helping the sustainability of organizations making an impact on children,” says Marshall. “I needed to prove that business-speak in the nonprofit sector makes sense. It wasn’t sexy, but it was essential.”
So she started knocking on doors east of the river, meeting with people like Brown. Through diligent work, she earned their trust to apply her business knowledge to organizations such as Life Pieces. “The founders of these nonprofits didn’t plan to spend their time putting together spreadsheets or creating a board of directors,” says Marshall. “They started because they wanted to help people. That’s where we come in.”
“Amanda did not enter communities as someone who wanted to ‘heal,’ ” says Brown. “Sister Amanda entered as someone who wanted to understand, share, and build as a true partner, and she became a friend.”
Fair Chance has provided free assistance to 120 nonprofits in the District and Prince George’s County, in the process helping more than 100,000 kids. Marshall now plans to expand her model nationwide. “I don’t let hurdles get in the way of outcomes,” she says. “Sometimes you just have to take a different path and look at things with a different angle.”
Executive Director, Institute for East African Councils on Higher Education
Helping high-school all-stars get into college sounds easy, but there’s a reason Matheos Mesfin works tirelessly—even sleeping in his office—during application deadlines. Three years ago, the 26-year-old Ethiopia native founded IEA Councils, a nonprofit that places immigrant and first-generation East Africans in top colleges. Washington boasts the largest Ethiopian population outside Addis Ababa, plus many Eritreans, Somalis, and Sudanese. Yet when it comes to higher ed, Mesfin found that even multilingual kids with 4.0 GPAs didn’t consider the Harvards or Middleburys. Reasons ranged from lack of awareness about scholarships to parents who saw institutions outside DC as an “alien concept.”
Mesfin knows what it means to come from another world. He enrolled in District public school after immigrating from Ethiopia in 2007 to join his mother—an experience he says took a lot of “self-navigation.” Another challenge came when he was awarded a Posse Scholarship to Iowa’s Grinnell College: “Grinnell was a place I had to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I say to my students, ‘There’s no growth in comfort.’ I always try to push them in ways that will be challenging academically, but socially and culturally as well.”
He and his team counsel more than 60 talented juniors and seniors. All of IEA Councils’ 100-odd alums have landed in four-year schools, including Stanford and MIT. More than just applications and interview training, the process involves taking students on college trips, reassuring parents, and outreach within close-knit communities that in some cases, such as Ethiopians and Eritreans, have been historically at odds. All of this with little funding outside Mesfin’s own pockets—he also works full-time for an affordable-housing nonprofit—and an eye on the big picture.
“I’d like to see these kids take initiative, whatever profession they’re in,” he says. “I want to see them in positions of leadership.”
J. Thomas Manger
Montgomery County Police Chief
J. Thomas Manger has spent his entire career as a police officer in the Washington suburbs. For the past 15 years, he’s been Montgomery County’s police chief, heading a department with more than 1,300 officers and 600 civilian employees.
He has seen big changes in the area and, in response, has worked hard to change how the police operate. Building trust is key, he believes. In 2017 alone, Montgomery’s police force handled 882 sexual-offense cases. The department is working with victim advocates and other groups to make reporting crimes less painful for sexual-assault victims.
Manger also stresses the importance of serving the county’s growing Latino community. Many immigrants have a fear of the unknown, he says. Manger is out several nights a week, accompanied by Spanish-speaking officers, to explain how police can help residents and assure people that his department isn’t an arm of federal immigration agencies.
In 2012, Manger was inducted into the Montgomery County Human Rights Hall of Fame. Five years later, he received the Keeper of the American Dream Award from the National Immigration Forum. He’s president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which confronts issues facing police forces nationwide.
In that role, Manger challenged President Trump in 2017 when he condoned rough treatment of people in police custody. On the association’s Facebook page (and in the Washington Post), Manger wrote: “While any elected official can give his or her views on how the police should do their jobs, it is the actions of police officers that speak directly to who we are.” He later explained: “I just wanted to make sure that folks understood that we take our jobs seriously, and we know how to do it right.”
Manger still thinks of himself as a cop first and police chief second: “Forty-two years on the job and I still love what I do.”
A mean boy inspired Karen Zacarías to find her life’s path. Zacarías was born in Mexico, and her family emigrated to the US while she was in elementary school. When a classmate started verbally abusing her, Zacarías was at a loss for words. She went home every day thinking about how she should have responded to her tormentor, even writing imagined dialogue. Before long, the boy became a character rather than a real person—and Zacarías was on her way to becoming a playwright.
After earning her MFA at Boston University, she came to Washington and began volunteering to teach playwriting workshops in DC schools. Recalling her childhood experience, she wanted to give local kids a chance to find their own voices.
The workshops were such a hit that Zacarías incorporated Young Playwrights Theatre as a nonprofit in 1997. YPT now has a full-time staff augmented by teachers, actors, directors, and designers who bring their experience into the classroom. Says Zacarías: “YPT helps kids find a way to figure out their stories and how to tell them.” She’s also part of the Latinx Theater Commons, a nationwide movement to create opportunities for Latinos in all theater disciplines.
This article appears in the January 2019 issue of Washingtonian.