Capitol hill lends a helping hand

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – On Sunday afternoons, a D.C. school bus stops at the corner of D and E streets and is swamped by smiling children trying to get on.

The sight is an unusual one anywhere, but especially in Washington D.C.’s Ward 8, the region of the nation’s capital where 47 percent of children grow up in poverty and the most violent crimes occur each year, according to 2000 Census figures.

“The kids come streaming out of the apartments and they run up and hug the volunteers because they’re just so happy to see them,” said Karin Walser, founder and director of Horton’s Kids, a local nonprofit that strives to deliver food, fun, and academic help to children and living necessities to other needy residents of the District.

Former press secretary for the late Rep. Joseph Moakley of Massachusetts, Walser is now full time director of Horton’s Kids. But the program still shows its strong ties to the Hill on Monday and Tuesday evenings, when its bus rolls the up to the Capitol and the children step off to be tutored by lobbyists and Hill staffers.

“We worked on the Hill so we knew a lot of people,” Walser said when asked why she chose to base tutoring at the Capitol. “We have a lot of friends there.”

From humble beginnings at an area gas station 15 years ago, Horton’s Kids has grown to a group of over 100 volunteers helping over 300 children. But as a beneficiary of the finances and manpower of politicians, lobbyists and public relations officials, the program intertwines individual lives with national agendas to an extent hard to find outside the District.

National politics meets fundraising efforts for Horton’s Kids head-on in the annual “Hoops for Hope” game, which pits congressmen against lobbyists representing a variety of causes in a basketball game that donates proceeds to Horton’s Kids and Hill House, another local charity.

Paul Miller, a lobbyist for a furniture manufacturers’ group who devised the event with Republican Rep. Jack Quinn, said the game was not created to achieve a political end.

“This wasn’t about lobbying, it was more of an evening for our lobbyists and congress members to get to know each other on a more casual basis outside the strict working relationship they have in the day,” he said. “And we just to play some basketball and raise some money for deserving kids.

“This is the kind of chummy relationship that people worry about,” said Sean Aday, Assistant Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. “But the thing to keep in mind is that in Washington, this kind of thing is normal.”

While adding that it would only exhibit a growing trend, he said a one-sided partisan showing at one of the games would be cause for concern. Such a showing existed in 2002 when the congressional team counted only one democrat in its ranks, according to the GW Hatchet.

“The reason for the strong Republican showing that year was that voting had to go late one night,” Miller said. He described Quinn’s last-minute scramble to get in touch with the Republican colleagues he was closest to.

But in-spite of divisions between its participants, the game has become a financial slam-dunk for the charities it benefits. According to Miller, proceeds from the event have grown from a paltry $7,500 in its first year to amounts exceeding $30,000 annually.

“I am proud that the Hoops for Hope Charity All Star Classic has been able to help so many area children with the financial support and help that they need,” Rep. Quinn said in an email. “These games have truly shown that politicians can come together in support of a worthy cause and help those less fortunate than others.”

Walser said she tries to take the mission of Horton’s Kids beyond politics.

“We try to fill gaps where society has missed them,” she said. “We try to shore up education, we feed the children every time we see them, we help mothers get health care where they don’t have it, and show kids the world outside the Ward once a week every Sunday.”

Congressional staffers find satisfaction in working toward the organization’s goals.

Erik Olsen, 25-year-old legislative assistant to Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, said previous experience working for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America sparked his interest in Horton’s Kids when he moved to the District.

“I didn’t have a car, and working in this program was easy because they would bring kids up to the Hill,” Olsen said. Olsen has worked with a fifth grade boy for over a year to improve his reading and math skills.

Erin McGuire graduated in 2000 and now works as a legislative assistant for Minnesota Sen. Mark Dayton. Through Horton’s Kids, she has organized a book club in a junior high school and befriended a second grader who others couldn’t handle.

“I went once and they gave me a kid who other tutors couldn’t deal with,” she said. “He’s kind of a rambunctious kid but it’s been great.”

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