Washington at its best — and its worst

 

danamilbank@washpost.com

This last weekend of April displays the very best and the very worst of Washington.

Most of the country sees the worst part: the triumph of money and power.

For the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner Saturday and its related soirees, media companies and lobbyists spend many millions of dollars to fete Hollywood celebrities and politicians. The dinner’s charitable origins were long ago lost, replaced by a desire of journalists to be players — to flatter the powerful and the famous and to feel as if they are powerful and famous themselves, at least for one night. Lost in this cozy celebration of wealth and fame is the journalistic notion of holding the powerful to account without fear or favor.

Less noticed by the rest of the country, Washington also has its best on display.

In Meadowbrook Park in Chevy Chase, Md., just a few hundred feet from the D.C. line, about 500 people signed up for Saturday’s Race to End Poverty. Sponsored by a local nonprofit, A Wider Circle, the race is a 4K — a nod to the group’s hope of furnishing 4,000 homes this year for people living in poverty in the Washington area. The organizers are motivated by the same thing that drives so many young people who come to the capital with youthful optimism, believing their actions can change the world.

In financial terms, the battle between cynicism and idealism is no contest. The nonprofit hopes to raise $25,000. Media companies and lobbying outfits spend that much on party favors alone during the weekend.

I’ve volunteered at A Wider Circle on and off for the last several years through my daughter’s school. She and I have spent Sunday afternoons sorting food donations, assembling gift baskets for new mothers and examining furniture donations to see whether the pieces are in “dignity condition” — of a high enough quality that the recipients won’t feel as if they are being given others’ refuse.

Before long, any volunteer at A Wider Circle, in Silver Spring, Md., learns the lore of its founder, Mark Bergel. Bergel, with a Ph.D. in sociology, was teaching at American University a dozen years ago when he decided to launch A Wider Circle, named after Einstein’s admonition to free ourselves form self-centeredness by “widening our circle of compassion.”

A few years in, Bergel plopped down on his bed after one of his 15-hour days. “I thought, this feels great,” he told me. “And then I thought, I have to get rid of this. The people we serve don’t get this moment. I don’t want this moment.”

And so Bergel, now 50, donated his bed and instead alternates between the couch and the floor of his small apartment in Bethesda. He drives to work in his Honda Fit subcompact and pays himself a salary of $48,000 (overhead at his charity is kept to an exemplary 3 percent of its $1.5 million in revenues). His ascetic existence, he says, helps “keep in mind what it feels like not to have something so basic as a bed.”

Bergel has expanded his operation from furniture, linens and baby items to training and professional clothes for job seekers. Now he’s attempting to match poor families with volunteers who will assist the families over the long term. Bergel has furnished housing for 63,000 people with an average household annual income of $12,000.

Does it work? Bergel admits that in follow-up calls to those whose homes A Wider Circle has furnished, fewer than half have working telephones after six months. But that means nearly half of them still do.

What’s extraordinary is that Bergel has done all this without help from any church (A Wider Circle has no religious affiliation) and precious little from the government (Montgomery County, Md., gives him less than 10 percent of his revenues, and the District of Columbia, whose residents are half of Bergel’s clients, gives nothing.)

“If there’s one thing I haven’t done as well, it’s pursue funding with the vigor we pursue service, and that’s one of the paradoxes of doing this work,” Bergel said. “I chose this because I don’t care about money. . . . And then as soon as you start the organization you realize, hmm, we need money. So you think about money every day.”

It’s a sign of hope that people such as Bergel still exist in the capital. It’s a sign of shame that Bergel goes begging while fat cats, politicians, media heavyweights and Hollywood celebrities toast each other at the White House Correspondents Association dinner.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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