Setting the table for reading Learning: Books are as accessible as soup and sandwiches at Martha's Table, a community center that provides human services for the needy in Washington.

August 30, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Reading is almost as important as eating around Martha's Table.

Though not as gnawing, perhaps, as an empty stomach, the need to read ranks among life's necessities recognized at the community center for needy people on 14th Street N.W.

Books are set out like extra loaves of bread, and children and adults are welcome to take them home for a while -- or a lifetime. They are also encouraged to partake of formal and informal literacy programs served day and night.

"Once you feed people, you very quickly realize you can do other things," said Veronica Parke, president of the 18-year-old center that has stretched into five bright yellow storefronts in an otherwise dingy block.

Over the years that Martha's Table has been handing out soup and sandwiches from vans at nine locations across the District of Columbia, it also has been offering at its headquarters such services as a summer camp program, computer classes, free clothing and hot showers for the homeless.

"There's the food, fun and recreation and learning. You mix it altogether and it's like our peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you can't tear it apart," Parke said.

When Martha's Table opened its newest service -- a laundry room -- it put in books rather than television sets to occupy those waiting for clean clothes. The laundry, opened in January, offers not only seven new washers, six dryers and two spotless stainless steel tables, but also two corners of books for adults, a computer and shelves of children's books.

Although Martha's Table calls it "laundry and literacy," no formal literacy classes are held in the laundry room.

"While people are there, what a wonderful opportunity to have fun learning," said Parke, who often uses "fun" and "learning" in tandem.

Maggie Phillips leaned back in her chair, her head bowed over a copy of "Mommie Dearest," as she waited for her laundry to finish.

"It's a blessing," she said of the laundry, which has a by-appointment-only policy and operates not on quarters but on tokens, earned through volunteer work around the center. When Phillips had to go to a commercial coin-operated laundry, she washed once or twice a month, she said. "Here, you can wash once a week."

Phillips, the mother of a 7-year-old boy who attends Martha's Table's summer camp, also enjoys the books. "They're here to read," she said, going back to the one in her lap.

Martha's Table's laundry is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday TTC through Friday for the families of children enrolled in one of its programs. Ten to 15 families use it daily. The laundry is used evenings for one-on-one tutoring sessions.

On Saturdays, youngsters responsible for their laundry can use the facility. They, too, are expected to put in time doing chores around the center, which needs 70 volunteers a day to operate.

That was enough to start Parke thinking about adding a laundry to Martha's Table.

Almost everyone the center serves is or was homeless, Parke said, explaining that five shelters used to be within walking distance. Even as people move into apartments and out of the neighborhood, they return to Martha's Table.

"We are the one thing that is stable in their lives," said Parke,

who started at the center as a volunteer 15 years ago and became its head in 1987.

Because Martha's Table is a rock in an otherwise shifting environment, it takes its role in education seriously, which explains the tie between children's programs and the laundry.

"We're just letting them know there's a place for their children to go," said Angela Hicks, the center's director of administration. The center has summer camp for youngsters ages 3 to 18.

During the school year, the center offers preschool and after-school care until 7 p.m. and includes not only homework help but also dinner. Year-round, volunteer tutors at least once a week work with youngsters -- and some adults -- in the evenings on reading and other subjects, Parke said.

Like most child care centers, the rooms at Martha's Table are bright and busy with toys and games, books and activity centers. Doors are covered with words printed on construction paper and donated new and used books are displayed, covers forward, on donated racks to lure readers.

In a stairwell are shelves of books that children can take home. The computers -- many donated piece by piece -- are loaded with educational games and software for all ages.

"After feeding and having a safe place for kids to be, reading is really important," said Parke. "We take the children to the library, and they get library cards," said Parke. "We have a Saturday book club. We do all the things that middle-class families do."

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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