By Southwester Staff

With the advent of summer and the lingering effects of COVID-19, the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly Youth Activities Task Force (SWNA YATF) is still working collaboratively with the SWNA Technology Task Force, SWNA Education and Scholarship Task Force, James Creek Resident Council, Syphax Gardens, Friends of SWDC, SW Action, and others to pursue its mission and provide greater and more enriching opportunities for youth. Created in 1982 by a group of SW volunteers, YATF’s mission is to enhance and enrich the cultural, educational, recreational, and technological development of our youth, ages 5-25, in the near Southwest community (20024 zip code). 

Since its inception, YATF has performed miracles on a shoe-string budget with a group of longstanding volunteers. The annual operating budget of less than $5,000 is derived from car washes, mail solicitations and the generosity of dedicated and committed members, long-time residents, and supporters such as the Friends of SW DC. While YATF does host programs, its primary focus is the awarding of grants ranging from $100 to $1000 supportive of efforts benefiting neighborhood schools (Amidon-Bowen Elementary School, Jefferson Academy and Richard Wright Public Charter School), Resident Councils (James Creek, Syphax Gardens, Greenleaf Gardens Extension, and Greenleaf Midrise), SW recreation centers (King Greenleaf and Randall), and other youth programs such DC STORM. YATF has also hosted a breast health class for the Recreation Center’s Young Ladies on the Rise. This year, with a grant from the SW Community Foundation, YATF will partner with the Thelma D. Jones Breast Cancer Fund to host at least five breast health classes at Jefferson Academy, Richard Wright and the resident councils.

In addition, YATF is pleased to have awarded $600 in 2021 to James Creek Resident Council to purchase shelves for an onsite food pantry which services hundreds of families in James Creek, Syphax Gardens, Greenleaf Seniors and Greenleaf Gardens Extension and Midrise. Grants of $1000 have been awarded to Amidon-Bowen Elementary for an Arena Stage outing to see Akeelah and the Bee, Randall Recreation Center for programmatic efforts, and SW Comm-Unity Day at Lansburgh Park, among others. “Summer in Lansburgh Park,” a well-established annual one-day gathering uniting former and current SW residents and their families, is held the last Saturday of August under the leadership of YATF Member Paul “Big South” Taylor, Executive Director, Comm-Unity Forum. The well-anticipated event resembles a family reunion with food, music, games, dancing, and other activities such as information tables that appeal to a range of age groups.

From 2013-2022, YATF revenues were approximately $40,000. The goal is to achieve a $15,000 budget for 2023-2024 through grant writing and donor solicitation which would enable the group to better serve and meet the many challenging needs of SW youths and the 250-300 families that they proudly serve annually. By 2025, YATF hopes to achieve a $40,000 budget to defray the cost of a part-time coordinator who can better help to strengthen its programmatic efforts in the post-COVID environment.

YATF’s signature program, Computer-for-Kids (CFK), was created in October 2007 to help reduce the digital divide in the community. Students ages 5-14 complete an eight-week one-hour class taught by highly skilled volunteer instructors, including senior instructor Gerald Brown from the World Bank Group and Jenelle Leonard, retired Federal Government and DCPS technology guru. The computer training focuses on computer skill fundamentals such as keyboarding and computer parts as well as the use of internet search tools for schoolwork and basic use of Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. The training also emphasizes healthy eating by serving healthy snacks after each class and uses every opportunity to share teachable moments that are in line with daily examples at school and at home. Held at James Creek Resident Council Computer Center, CFK has graduated a class practically every year since inception, and in some cases twice yearly, with an additional computer camp during the summer. To date, more than 160 students (ages 5-14) have graduated from the program. 

Upon meeting CFK’s requirements of good attendance, good behavior, and good participation, YATF holds a graduation which features a guest speaker, often YATF graduates or prominent people in related areas, presentation of certificates of completion, and a reception. In addition, the students receive a refurbished computer like the one they trained on during class. Donated computers and maintenance of the James Creek Computer Center are provided through a partnership with the SWNA Technology Task Force, who set up the computer center and donates refurbished computers from a variety of local sources for community use, including ESTF scholarship students and seniors.

YATF is considering expanding the training offered for older students (ages 9-12) to include supplemental activities that focus on coding which create more interest in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) programs.

The long-time involvement with many of the youth stemmed from YATF’s initial signature summer jobs program which employed more than 300 youth beginning in the early 1980s for more than six years. The program included grant support from the Rotary Club, Meyer’s Foundation, and the World Bank Group, among others, to pay the youths’ salary, a paid coordinator, and a yearly six-week soft skills training program lead by volunteer Thelma D. Jones, who has currently served as YATF’s chair since 2012. The soft skills training included telephone etiquette, resume writing, motivational speakers, and field trips to work sites such as the JW Marriott Flagship. Each youth was also assigned a volunteer mentor with the program culminating in a closing ceremony. Worksites that employed SW kids included the JW Marriott Flagship, American Bar Association, United Way of the National Capital Area, HUD, Food and Friends, WUST-AM, and the World Bank Group. The youth’s performance was recognized by the employers, including one youth subsequently being invited back to the World Bank during each college and summer break until graduation. Another youth worked for more than two years on a full-time World Bank temporary contract.  As the Mayor Barry Summer Employment Program increased in scope, YATF served as a host site for several years and encouraged SW youth participation in the Mayor’s program. However, over time, this effort was not sustainable and the kids’ employment opportunities dwindled.

With a helping-hand from Mayor Bowser, which was inspired by her SW tour in 2017, YATF has enthusiastically returned to its initial signature program of providing summer employment to youth ages 14-24. That year, at least 10 youth received summer jobs under the leadership of Christine Spencer, YATF Member and James Creek Resident Council President. Several youths have been hired each summer since and at least 10 youth are scheduled for Summer 2023. 

YATF’s summer jobs program benefited more than SW youth and families. In 1999, Jones successfully piloted the World Bank Group summer internship program with three Cardozo Senior High School students based on the well-recognized YATF model. At least 125 high school students had benefitted from the summer and in-school internship program by the time of Jones’ retirement in 2005. The internship program also included a weekly training component each Friday as a check-in on the interns’ progress. SW youth Lisa Matthews, who started with YATF at age 14, would subsequently be invited as a guest speaker to one of the World Bank’s summer internship programs. The World Bank program still existed prior to the start of Covid-19, having employed more than 250 youth, including inspiring other private sectors to follow suit.

One of YATF’s greatest accomplishments is the collaboration with Perry Klein, Chair, SWNA Technology Task Force, and with the SWNA Education and Scholarship Task Force (ESTF). To introduce youth to computer refurbishing, Klein welcomed the volunteer support of Noah Matthews, 18, son of YATF Lisa Matthews, in helping to refurbish 82 HP ProDesktop computers donated to SWNA by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Noah’s effort epitomizes the saying that “an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” as his mom is highly experienced in the computer field as well. Also, continuing the collaboration, YATF shares at least five of the same members, including, but not limited to, Vyllorya Evans, ESTF current co-chair, Delma Weathers, Former YATF chair and Rick Bardach, Treasurer, serving both task forces. 

Another source of pride relates to students who have completed the YATF CFK classes and are now scholarship recipients. For example, CFK student Jada Miles, who enrolled in the program when she was about 12 years old, is a 2020 college graduate who received several scholarships from ESTF. At least 10 other YATF students are scholarship recipients. The goal is to recruit students at an early age in order to work with them and their families through enrollment in college and beyond. Another stellar example is Rhonda Hamilton, who started with YATF’s summer jobs program at Food and Friends when she was 14 years old and is now a veteran and well-respected ANC Commissioner in SW.

While YATF has been a staunch advocate for SW youth from its inception, the organization is now assuming an even greater advocacy role around neighborhood schools’ modernization and instructional needs, including the need for maintaining qualified teachers and increasing funding for specific programs, such as technology. Its advocacy includes calling and writing elected officials and inviting them to speak on relevant issues at the SWNA monthly forum, among other efforts. In addition, YATF has been a leader in organizing an annual youth and education forum with the support of ESTF.

Lastly, In 2020, YATF collaborated with SW Action in response to inappropriate and unfavorable comments about SW youth that were widely reported on Next Door and other forums. The result was a message about the collective efforts that many were making in SW to help with SW youth’s growth and development. The open letter to the community was subsequently printed in The Southwester. Unfavorable and inappropriate comments about youth have ceased on public forums such as Next Door. Also, SW Action worked closely with YATF in 2021 to make over 100 Soul Boxes to help address the gun violence epidemic. YATF is actively organizing the Soul Box Project and looks forward to working with SW Action again under the leadership of YATF Lisa Matthews who did an outstanding job in representing the community on this national effort, which included a touching ceremony on the National Mall in 2021. SW Action is a group of SW residents, including YATF chair Jones, who organize and advocate for a more equitable, anti-racist, and environmentally sustainable neighborhood. YATF is also working with the group to produce a list of resources for SW youth.

Volunteers are always needed. The average time commitment is about 2 hours per month, depending on the nature of the project that a volunteer is working on. If you are interested in volunteering or donating to YATF, please email or call (202) 251-1639. Checks or money orders should be payable to the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly and note YATF in the memo line. Please mail donation to the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly, P.O. Box 70131, Washington, DC 20024 or donate online at and click on Youth Activities Task Force.

YATF Chair Thelma D. Jones contributed to this article.

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