Children of hers
The unsung legacy of an anti-poverty warrior
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I often edit better and occasionally think better by keeping a particular person in mind.
For years in editing WORLD one of our readers, a 50-year-old dentist, appeared to me: Smart and busy, thoughtful but not academic, he wanted to think Christianly and valued a magazine that helped him to do so without wasting his time.
For years in evaluating poverty-fighting groups, I thought about heroic Hannah Hawkins, the widow of a husband murdered in 1970. For 30 years, from 1985 until the last few months, she ran Children of Mine Youth Center, an after-school program for 50-100 kids in Anacostia, the part of Washington, D.C., that tourist guides ignore.
During visits over the past two decades she taught me to look beneath the surface of glowing programs. On one visit she had just come back from a government-sponsored meeting about Southeast Washington revitalization. She fumed, “The beautiful people were there, looking for money. Just like the War on Poverty, money went into the pockets of the greedy. These folks are ready to clean up—unless stuff gets funky. Then they call me in to be the cleanup person.”
The old building that housed Children of Mine was crowded. The roof sometimes leaked. A realistic soundtrack for her program would feature chattering kids but also police sirens and, occasionally, gunshots. But Hawkins scowled about opportunities to send kids to nice facilities. She’d get invitations for them to show up on days when officials were visiting nonprofits: Those charity managers wanted to create the illusion of vibrant activity.
‘I ain’t easy to deal with, but my children know I love them and care about them.’ — Hannah Hawkins
Why did children flock to her when she commanded them, “Wash those dirty hands”? When she told a preteen, “Your armpits stink. Wash them before you come tomorrow,” why did the boy meekly say, “Yes, ma’am”? They obeyed because most of the adults they knew were selfish, but Miz Hawkins wanted what was best for them. “I ain’t easy to deal with,” she said, “but my children know I love them and care about them.” Her goal was to bring them “from disgrace to grace.”
She often gave children maxims such as, “Stay on the street called straight. … Get that ugliness off your face. … People who pick fights end up dead or in jail.” She wouldn’t accept government money because she then “couldn’t have prayer.” Besides, when she once agreed to take federally supplied meals, “The milk was warm, the tacos were cold, and the watermelon was sour.”
Hawkins, a handful of volunteers, and some donors made it possible for her to lead Bible studies, tutor children, and give them grammar lessons along with a meal: “I need one person to tell me what a verb is.” Money was tight, but she hated waste and told of official anger when she didn’t give milk to children who didn’t want milk: “They said I didn’t give the children complete meals. I said I wanted to teach the children not to waste.” She scorned the government response: “Give it to them anyway. Give them a complete meal, and let them throw it in the trash.”
Hawkins went from age 55 to age 75 during the time I knew her, but seemed ageless. She died of cancer on May 7. Sixteen days later The Washington Post reported her demise. That’s better than my record of not hearing the sad news until June 17.
She was not a favorite of child advocates on the left, so she often went unnoticed by all except the children she saved. One scene of The Right Stuff (1983) shows reporters asking astronaut Gordo Cooper who was the greatest pilot he ever saw. Cooper starts musing about pilots at a base in California’s high desert, far from the publicity spotlight … and some of them crashed and had their photos on the wall of a bar that burned down … and he starts to give the name of the greatest, Chuck Yeager—but the reporters are impatient.
Yeager, at least, is famous for breaking the sound barrier, and he did a commercial for batteries. Hawkins helped the children she mentored break through barriers, but she had no commercials and made no money. Still, she’s the best anti-poverty warrior I ever saw.
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