Grantor: The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, Washington, D.C.
Grantee: The Fishing School
In parts of Washington, D.C., the word “fishermen” brings to mind the knots of itinerant men who while away the hours leaning on bridge railings over the Anacostia river. The term means something else entirely at The Fishing School, an after-school family and child support center located in a gritty corner of the city’s Trinidad neighborhood. Tom Lewis, the school’s president and CEO, says he doesn’t believe in children or staff members coming to the school to hang out. “I don’t want anything at the Fishing School that doesn’t work,” he says. “That includes people. You do not come to the Fishing School to rest.” Nor is Lewis at rest, having attracted the attention of the local community and the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, whose recent grant is helping to cover the general costs of running the program’s after-school and summer camp programs.
Lewis is a former D.C. police officer who participated in the department’s “Officer Friendly” program. Visiting local classrooms, he was astonished at “so many filthy and dirty children coming to school, morning after morning. I’ll tell you the honest truth, I walked out of a lot of those classrooms and I wiped my eyes.” Lewis still remembers six-year-olds asking him: “Would you be my daddy? My daddy’s in jail.” Lewis vowed that if he survived 20 years with the department, he would do something for the kids.
He made it to retirement. Then, one morning while praying in church, he had a vision of himself standing before a schoolhouse door and instructing children. Lewis decided to use his second house, which he had originally purchased as an investment, as a school for the community instead. There was only one problem. The house was located on a street so bad that even the local cops called it “the worst in America.” Wylie Street was such a haven for drugs and criminal gang activity that Lewis’s brother, also a police officer, scoffed when he first heard of his plan. “We ride four to a car and we don’t go down that block,” he told him. Volunteers from his church ran off after a first visit.
But Lewis persisted, and the after-school program that resulted provides a computer lab, creative writing workshop, homework assistance, and a hot meal—the only one some kids get all day. The school stresses education and a “hands-on” atmosphere. For instance, one volunteer specializes in taking small groups to the Goddard Center to study science and rocketry. This portion culminates in a model rocket competition using the missiles made by the kids. Lewis makes sure that there is time each day for Bible study and helps organize and support family activities for the community.
The school has served about 500 kids since opening its doors in 1990, or around 65 kids a year. It is open until 8 p.m. during the school year, with abbreviated hours in summer. So far, the school can count among its charges these success stories: a student who’s taken an interest in ballet and gone on to perform with the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Washington Ballet; another who became the first in her family to go to college, with aspirations of becoming a lawyer; and a third who has won an $8,000 poetry scholarship for college. Lewis realizes that each child is “fishing” for something different, and wants to impress upon them that, no matter what they are seeking, it will only come true if they work hard and respect themselves and those around them. And from here, it looks like he’s got a big one on the line.