Demond: No Diploma, National Champion

The problem of chronic absenteeism is complex. In recent months, many have weighed in on this issue following reporting on challenges uncovered at a number of DC high schools. This year’s senior class experienced unusually strict accountability due to public outrage. But, by responding reactively to public outrage, local leaders failed to truly understand the problem, creating unintended consequences for the city’s young people.

If you want to understand the challenges DC kids face, then we think you need to meet Demond.

Demond I AmLast summer, mold left Demond’s family rental home uninhabitable. While attempting to address this problem through appropriate legal channels, Demond and his family were temporarily placed by DC government in a hotel in Virginia. When the government’s support ran out, the family split up to live with various relatives. Demond found himself at his aunt’s house in Maryland.

As his mother continued to fight a housing battle in DC courts, Demond entered his senior year of high school at Eastern. A lifelong DC resident, he discovered that his DC One Card would not allow him to get to school from his aunt’s house in Maryland.

Though he made efforts to complete his coursework, he soon found himself failing classes due to absenteeism. This challenge was made more complicated because one of Demond’s classes did not have a regular teacher. His government teacher missed significant portions of the year on military and paternity leave.

Oh, and did I mention he’s a twin? How is a sub expected to know which identical twin showed up to class?

Demond ended up failing a class first semester. He then moved to his sister’s house so his DC One Card would allow him to come to school more easily. He made up his failure through an evening credit recovery class. He handled all his academic requirements.

But, he still didn’t graduate.

Why? Because he didn’t have enough community service hours. WHAT? I know what you’re thinking. He’s a Reach tutor. Reach is Demondinherently about service. You’re right. He’s tutored DCPS elementary school students for over 150 hours. He has presented on behalf of local nonprofits through our Teen Philanthropy Challenge. But, he got paid. And, DC policy makes that unacceptable.

So, in May, Demond found out that he wasn’t going to graduate with his class. And, you know what he did after that?

He got on an airplane for the first time. You see, Demond spent the last year preparing for the National Invention Convention & Entrepreneurship Expo.

He’s brilliant and creative. He does graphic design work on the side.

Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 11.29.51 PMAfter developing an idea during the 2017 Reach Summer Leadership Academy, Demond worked with the STEMIE Coalition to prepare for this national competition. He missed his prom to go. And, while he was there, he won a national award for Best App. The patent is pending. His invention helps families more easily shop for groceries on a budget.

Do we really think he doesn’t deserve a diploma?

If we want to support young people on their path to graduation, let’s start with three policy changes.

1)   Service can be paid. To be able to work for free is a privilege. Let’s honor paid work for nonprofit organizations as well as family childcare. When families are dealing with housing instability and wildly expensive childcare, are we really saying they have to work outside their families for free? Demond served Payne Elementary for three years, and we honored his work with a monthly stipend. That should not erase his service.

2)   Pay for Transportation. Mayor Bowser’s support of student transportation is admirable. But, we live in a city where family housing instability is far too high and the city regularly places families outside DC. We must be sure these highly mobile students can still get to school.

3)   More Flexible Credit Earning Opportunities. Do we really think that sitting in class with an inconsistent substitute teacher is better than Demond’s yearlong experience preparing for the National Invention Convention? We should allow vetted DCPS partners to create credit-recovery experiences for young people that need more flexible options to satisfy graduation requirements. This could be done in partnership with licensed DCPS teachers to ensure academic rigor.

DCPS is currently requesting public feedback on their new graduation requirements. Let’s make sure they create a system that supports students like Demond.

He’ll walk in August, but he should have walked in June. All of us – every DC citizen – should be ashamed that we’ve created a system that doesn’t support an exceptional young person battling to succeed. When rules are more important than reason, we’re doing it wrong.

Now, we have a chance to do it better.

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Announcement: 2018 Book Grants!

We are thrilled to announce our 2018 Book Grants. This spring, we will give away over 2,500 teen-authored books to young readers across the District of Columbia. You can learn about all our books here.

Our newest grantees are listed below (number of books in parentheses):

Black Girls Matter, Lois Void (40)
For use in read aloud sessions each Saturday.

Charles Houston Elementary School, Howard Perkins (140)
For use to increase reading engagement and inspire young readers.

DC Public Schools Libraries, Janet Corson (320)
For placement in all DCPC ES and EC libraries.

DoL Child Developent Center, Jennifer Rancourt (20)
For use in early childhood education classrooms.

Drew Elementary School, Jennifer Johnson (100)
For distribution at the end of the school year to prevent summer slide.

Dunbar High School, Rajeeni Galloway (75)
For use in programs for those with intellectual disabilities and teen mothers 

E.L. Haynes PCS, Brittany Wagner-Friel (101)
For distribution to elementary school readers.

For Love of Children, Tim Payne (200)
For distribution at an annual Book Festival.

HER (an initiative at Sidwell Friends), Zoha Siddiqui (62)
For the creation of a library in the village of Amezray, Morocco.

Inner City-Inner Child, Ingrid Zimmer (200)
For distribution in partner early childhood programs.

Jubilee Jumpstart, Kim Montroll (75)
For use in classrooms and distribution at family engagement events.

KIPP DC: AIM Academy, Ashleigh Rose (22)
For daily out loud reading exercises.

Marie Reed Elementary, Jackie Anderson (100)
For use in a reading program that encourages reading outside of school.

King Elementary, Viki Smith (101)
For distribution to young readers and select school classrooms.

Miner Elementary, Lindsey Jones-Renaud (21)
For inclusion in classroom libraries.

Payne Elementary, Kesha Weeks (132)
For use to ensure every student has access to books at home.

Powell Elementary, Erin Clark (75)
For inclusion in classroom libraries.

Reading Partners, Cielo Contreras (126)
For use in Take Reading Home Libraries at 19 sites across the city.

Safe Shores, Michele Booth Cole (125)
For distribution to clients and use in therapeutic sessions.

Simon Elementary, Sandra Randolph Hardman (164)
For distribution to elementary school students.

Thomas Elementary, Rico McCard (60)
For use in classrooms in which Rico (a Reach alumnus) is an assistant.

Truesdell Education Campus, Betsy Hamm (36)
For a teacher book club aimed at discovering new and diverse texts.

Whittier Education Campus, Tenia Pritchard (105)
For distribution to students so they can read at home.

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Alumna Profile: Leah

We’ve seen a lot of Leah* recently. She’s been in the office once a week. Working. During the last month, we’ve been all about Reach’s #AlwaysThere campaign. But, it’s important that you know why. Why is it important that we’re always there?

*Leah is not her real name.

Leah reached out to us a couple months ago. She had recently graduated from Ballou – one of the many who likely wouldn’t have made it based on her attendance. She was a tutor for three years and Lead Tutor for one. She co-authored a book.

She was also one of five kids in her family. Three are still alive. Mom was, understandably, depressed. Clinically. Two younger siblings remained. Leah wanted something better for them.

And, because her mom was struggling, it was on her. She got them to school, fed them, clothed them, loved them…and that was hard. It cost her days of school last year and days of work this year. Too many days of work, so she ended up out of work. And, we know supporting kids costs money…

At first, she asked us for some financial help. We have a small budget for that. But then, she made it clear that she preferred to work for money. She started coming into the office once a week. She asked, “What can I do?” She did book inventories, addressed envelopes, sold books, wrote thank you notes, and more. She earned money. She fed her siblings. Eventually, she found a better full-time job. She still showed up at Reach’s office once a week.

And, during it all, she knew that her younger siblings weren’t thriving. She knew her mom wasn’t doing right by them. She knew this at 19. She knew she couldn’t afford to support them alone. She knew this at 19. She had a difficult conversation with her mother and facilitated her siblings’ transition to her aunt’s house. She did this at 19.

When this relocation required a new daycare for her youngest sister, she put down the deposit using her own funds. She did this at 19.

Reach is about being #AlwaysThere for the young people we serve. That’s important because it allows teens to thrive…even if only eventually. Leah knows she can always lean on us. She has. She feels guilty about it. She shouldn’t.

But, because we’re always there, she knows that she can be too. She can focus on her siblings. She can ensure they stay out of trouble, stay in school, and feel loved. She’s filling the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy for her siblings in a way that wasn’t done for her.

This is all part of the education of an adolescent.

Leah is a hero. She’s still focused on her future – it’s mortuary science…that’s exciting, even if you think it’s gross – and we remain confident she’ll make it happen. But, in the moment, she had to be more focused on what her siblings needed. And, when they weren’t getting it, she gave it to them. On her own.

Life is complex. We, as a society, often fail. Leah is trying to succeed anyway.


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#AlwaysThere – You

As the year ends, it’s a great time to look back at all we’ve done because of those who have been #AlwaysThere for Reach: You! Let’s look back at ten special moments that demonstrate all we’ve done in 2017.

EL Haynes - A to Z10) Tomorrow, 600 of our books will be shipped to Bureau of Prisons waiting rooms so children visiting incarcerated family members will have something to read. Earlier in the year, we partnered with Inner City Inner Child, Shout Mouse Press, and the DC Share Fund to distribute A to Z: The Real DC to 3,000 young readers in DC. To date, over 20,000 of our teen-authored books have been sold or distributed.

9) Reach won an Exemplary Project ARandy - Newspaperward from the Goldin Foundation for Excellence in Education.

8) In the spring, the Rales Leadership Council – a group of tutors who provide guidance on issues of program policy – recommended to Reach’s board of directors that we launch a small scholarship program. In March, their proposal was approved, and in April, we granted our first five scholarships!

7) Darne’sha and Jakeyla became the thirteenth and fourteen tutors to earn the prestigious Junior Staff Hoodie.

6) In June, four Reach tutors spoke at graduation ceremonies. Mylia read a Jewel - Gradpoem, while Jewel and Litzi gave valedictory addresses. Additionally, Trevon, a tutor at HD Woodson, was invited to address the graduating 5th grade students at Drew Elementary, where he tutors twice each week.

5) We hired two new positions and moved into a new office space!

4) Teens in our Summer Leadership Academy granted $3,500 to local organizations through our Teen Philanthropy Challenge. The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project took home the $1,250 grand prize!

3) We launched our 9th program site, a partnership between Coolidge High and Whittier Education Campus. Additionally, our Dunbar tutors started tutoring at Center City PCS –Screen Shot 2017-12-28 at 8.25.24 PM Shaw.

2) 13 of our teens authored four new books. We celebrated their release at our annual Book Release Party.

1) We received a $300,000 investment from The Bender Foundation to support growth of our current programs and invest in additional supports to help teens with the transition to college or career.

We are working to build a community and an organization worthy of the kids we serve. With your continued support, we can do even more in 2018. If you’re already on our #AlwaysThere campaign donor list, thank you! If not, please consider making a year-end donation today!

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#AlwaysThere – Aunt Mary

This post was authored by Kim Davis, one of Reach’s site managers, and is part of our year-end #AlwaysThere campaign.

Aunt Mary is my second mother. She helped raise me. Her daycare center, Aunt Mary’s Little Family, is down the street from my parents’ house. I started attending the daycare center when I was a baby.

ApparentIMG_1680ly, I was finicky and wouldn’t let a stranger hold me. But, when my mom stopped by Aunt Mary’s house to check things out, I quickly stopped crying and let Aunt Mary hold me.  She’s been holding me, literally and figuratively, ever since.

Each Day, Aunt Mary made everyone their favorite breakfast – mine was always cheese grits. Parents were always trying to live up to her cooking skills. Few did. Everyone who went to Aunt Mary’s was treated like family. She made sure we felt her love.

Aunt Mary taught everyone to spell their first word: Green. We had to spell it before we were allowed to go outside and play. And, every summer, we all got to visit Sesame Place. The biggest highlight of every trip was a single gift, a new Aunt Mary Loves Me t-shirt.


Kim’s card reads, “From baby Kimmy to adulthood, Aunt Mary is #AlwaysThere.”

I still have mine years later. All members of “Mary’s family” fight about who deserves to be called Aunt Mary’s favorite. But, I think you all should know that Aunt Mary once told me – she whispered in my ear – that it was me.

Aunt Mary has celebrated every birthday, holiday, and achievement with me. And, I am just one of hundreds. She was my preschool, and she was at my college graduation. Aunt Mary is #AlwaysThere singing, laughing, and telling me she loves me. And, I love her.

Aunt Mary’s house always felt like home. It’s where I met my best friend and learned how to read. The role she played in my life continues to inspire me in my work today. I want to be #AlwaysThere for Reach’s kids just like Aunt Mary was for me.


Through the end of the year, we’ll be sharing stories that demonstrate our year-end campaign theme: #AlwaysThere. It’s what inspires Reach’s work, and it’s what we try to be for our kids. We hope you’ll use #AlwaysThere to tell us your stories using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

And, when so inspired, we hope you’ll visit to make a contribution.

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#AlwaysThere – My Father

This post was authored by Mark Hecker, Reach’s executive director, and is part of our year-end #AlwaysThere campaign.

In the first post of this campaign, I told the story of my mother. It was her presence that allowed me to succeed where others might have failed. Though gone shortly after my 13th birthday, my father also played a key role in my development. In fact, he lived by a quote that, since the first time I heard it, has remained a challenge:

541253_10100192329297354_2056454645_nI shall pass through this world just once. Any good I can do, therefore, or any kindness I can show, to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer it, nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.

No one really knows who said it. It’s most often now listed as a Quaker saying. But, I feel challenged to live up to that expectation – defined by my father – each and every day.

My father remains in a more literal way as well. Reach’s name was invented as part of a grad school assignment. And it stuck. One of the reasons it stuck was that my father’s initials, ACH, sat looking back at me every time I wrote it. It was a constant reminder of him asJunior Staff a driving force in everything Reach does.

My father’s initials – his presence – are literally present everywhere Reach’s name appears…on teen-authored books, in newspaper articles, and on the curriculum manuals that drive the work our participants do every day.

But, most important, they sit on the hoodie. The hoodie is Reach’s highest honor. Only 13 tutors have earned it. Instructors only get it after a year of service. Full-time employees are told to wear it with pride. I wear mine a lot. And there, sitting on my heart, my father’s initials.

Gone for more than 22 years, he’s still #AlwaysThere.


Through the end of the year, we’ll be sharing stories that demonstrate our year-end campaign theme: #AlwaysThere. It’s what inspires Reach’s work, and it’s what we try to be for our kids. We hope you’ll use #AlwaysThere to tell us your stories using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

And, when so inspired, we hope you’ll visit to make a contribution.

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#AlwaysThere – William’s Friends

Through the end of the year, we’ll be sharing stories that demonstrate our year-end campaign theme: #AlwaysThere. It’s what inspires Reach’s work, and it’s what we try to be for our kids. We hope you’ll use #AlwaysThere to tell us your stories using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

And, when so inspired, we hope you’ll visit to make a contribution.

This post was authored based on an interview with William Ross, Reach’s Development Manager.

Have you ever had a really bad week? William had just gone through a break-up. He didn’t love his job. He needed a change. And, to make things worse, he had to figure out how to return his ex’s dog, which was currently in Florida with his parents. There was a lot going on. Not much of it was good.

The only bright spot was an upcoming job interview. William was excited about the position and the organization. His interview was just a few days away.

Then, while moving some of his stuff from his ex’s place to his friend’s basement, he slipped and fell down a flight of stairs. It hurt, but he got up and continued with his plans for the day – he was supposed to be at a memorial service for a friend’s father. After the service, William’s neck pain was getting worse, so he visited a nearby urgent care clinic.

The doctor was writing a prescription for painkillers when he decided to do a precautionary x-ray. When he returned to the room, he said only two words. His look was concerned and serious.

Don’t. Move.2137_1492634737258

A nurse followed behind with a neck brace. The doctor informed William: “You broke your neck.” An ambulance ride followed. Within hours, William was admitted to the hospital, and he met the doctor who would be performing surgery on his spine. For almost two days, he was put into spinal traction.

It’s apparently just as comfortable as it sounds.

From his phone, William withdrew from consideration for the job he wanted so badly. He couldn’t go to work for at least a month…and that was assuming everything went well in surgery. He wouldn’t be able to attend the interview.

But, it was at rock bottom that things started changing. He was already scheduled to move into a new place. His friends handled everything. His mom came to stay with him for a few weeks, then took him back to Florida to recover. One of his parents’ neighbors even brought the dog from Florida.

Everyone showed up.

Then, a month later, when he was finally cleared to go back to work, William noticed something. That job was still open. He contacted the employer and discovered they hadn’t yet found the right fit. He returned and, six weeks after he missed an interview due to spinal surgery, William got the job.

For the last five months, William has been Reach’s Development Manager. He’s running the #AlwaysThere campaign for Reach because so many people were #AlwaysThere for him.

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#AlwaysThere: A Special Wedding Gift

Through the end of the year, we’ll be sharing stories that demonstrate our year-end campaign theme: #AlwaysThere. It’s what inspires Reach’s work, and it’s what we try to be for our kids. We hope you’ll use #AlwaysThere to tell us your stories using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

And, when so inspired, we hope you’ll visit to make a contribution.

All month, we’re sharing #AlwaysThere stories about the way that strong relationships lead to more positive outcomes. But, part of Reach’s work – our efforts to diversify children’s literature – is about supporting people who will remain strangers. How can we be #AlwaysThere for people we’ll never meet?

Joe, Kim, and Graham are great examples of that idea. They all met through their work with Reach. As committed supporters and regular volunteers, these three people came to know each other. And, over time, friendships developed.


Graham, Kim, and Joe (pictured here with two unidentified wedding crashers) at Mark and Elizabeth’s wedding.

A couple months ago, Reach’s founder (Mark) got married. Wanting to make a special gift, this trio of terrific people began thinking of ways to celebrate Mark’s marriage to his wife, Elizabeth, in a way that was meaningful to all.

It was at that time that a local group, DC Books to Prisons, received approval to distribute Reach’s children’s books to visitor waiting rooms in the federal prison system. All we needed was funding. Working with our publishing partners, Shout Mouse Press, the three friends made a gift.

In the coming months, five of Reach’s books will be distributed to all 120 federal prisons where DC citizens serve time – 600 books in total! When children visit incarcerated family members, they will be able to read books authored by Reach teens and published by our friends at Shout Mouse Press.

Joe will never meet the kids that read these books. Kim will likely never hear anyone thank her. Graham won’t get to see the young readers enjoying the books. But, all the same, they chose to be #AlwaysThere in a really powerful way for young people visiting loved ones in federal prisons. And, with their help, Reach and Shout Mouse will be able to bring comfort at a time when it’s needed the most.

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#AlwaysThere: Brittany

Through the end of the year, we’ll be sharing stories that demonstrate our year-end campaign theme: #AlwaysThere. It’s what inspires Reach’s work, and it’s what we try to be for our kids. We hope you’ll use #AlwaysThere to tell us your stories using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

And, when so inspired, we hope you’ll visit to make a contribution.

This post is based on an interview with Camila, a student at Payne Elementary School.

She has learned the language well. Her speaking shows evidence of the sentence starters she’s been taught. When asked, “What is your favorite part about working with Brittany?”, she responds, “My favorite part about working with Brittany is…”FullSizeRender(37)

She is quick to explain: “I am from Cartagena.” Her father is a DCPS Spanish teacher. He came last year, and the rest of the family followed this year. Understandably, she wasn’t entirely secure in her English when she started. As she explains it, “Sometimes, people would say words I didn’t know. It made me sad.”

Her name is Camila.

On the first day, our partner teacher noted how shy she was. She still felt more comfortable speaking Spanish. When Brittany heard that, she started speaking to Camila in Spanish. Camila lit up. The teacher said, “See, we found a Reach tutor just for you…”FullSizeRender(39)

According to Camila, Brittany is nice. She has a positive attitude. She is always happy. And, most important, “sometimes, when I finish my work, she lets me play a game on her cell phone.”

No wonder Brittany is so popular.

Brittany didn’t feel like she had done anything special. All she did was speak. But, for one little girl, it was so much more. In a way that the adults in the room couldn’t be, Brittany was #AlwaysThere for Camila.

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#AlwaysThere: Reading

Through the end of the year, we’ll be sharing stories that demonstrate our year-end campaign theme: #AlwaysThere. It’s what inspires Reach’s work, and it’s what we try to be for our kids. We hope you’ll use #AlwaysThere to tell us your stories using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

And, when so inspired, we hope you’ll visit to make a contribution.


Linsey (left) with fellow Site Managers,
Kim Davis and Luisa Furstenberg

This post was authored by Linsey McCombs, our Site Manager at Ballou, Eastern, and H.D. Woodson.

I was five years old and completely bored. All day long the movers were in and out of our new house in Connecticut, placing our boxes in the various rooms. I remember sitting on the front step…just waiting. I was so desperate for them to finish because my dad promised me that we could go to Waldenbooks – does anyone remember Waldenbooks? – if I stayed out of the way.

Finally, the movers packed up their supplies and left.  And off we went to the bookstore. I have always loved bookstores. Even when I was little, I knew that there were amazing stories just waiting for me. I enjoyed searching the shelves until I found the perfect book. That day, I picked Cinderella. I couldn’t wait until bedtime so I could ask my Dad to read it to me.

That’s one moment when reading brightened my day. In my lifetime, there are too many to count. Once I was able to read on my own, you couldn’t stop me. There were many nights when I stayed up late to finish a book, keeping the light dim so my mom wouldn’t know I was still awake. I heard warnings that I would ruin my eyes. That didn’t deter me. (Note: The fact that I wear glasses now is unrelated.)

In school, English class is where I would shine. I understood the power of words. When I went to my math classes, I felt I was in a foreign land. The teacher and my classmates conversed in the local language while I sat there confused. Literature was my home. I understood it and its rules. I scrutinized character development, themes and figurative language even before I knew those terms.

Eventually, when I entered Boston College, I chose to pursue a double major in secondary education and English because I wanted to help students love words like I do. Yes, reading always brought me joy, but it also allowed me to accomplish my goals. My school performance, college acceptance, and current employment all happened, in part, because I can read.

I am proud to work at Reach because it allows me to support students who feel about reading like I did about math. Whether the books that kept me company when I moved to a new town, or the words on the applications I completed to achieve significant life goals, my ability to read has been something I have leaned on my whole life. If our kids do the work now, books and words will be #AlwaysThere for them, too.

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