Nathan Woods can still hear the gunshots outside his D.C. home in the early ’90s. He grew up in Wellington Park, a neighborhood less than four miles from the lobbying and lawmaking of Capitol Hill.
When he was a sophomore at Woodberry Forest High School, an all-boys boarding school down in Virginia, he got the call: His oldest brother, Errick, had been shot in the head. By the time he got to the hospital, his brother was dead.
But Errick, or “Bubby” as his family called him, left behind a plan. He was the one who signed his siblings up for Horton’s Kids, an organization focused on serving Ward 8, where they lived with their single mom.
“We got on the bus … and we headed to a local library around the corner,” a now 27-year-old Woods tells me over the phone as he fights his way through morning traffic in the District. Before long he was visiting the Capitol building, which felt much further away than it was.
The group’s connection to Congress dates back to 1989, when founder Karin Walser was working as a staffer for Democratic Rep. Joe Moakley. One night as she stopped for gas in Southeast D.C., a group of kids who lived in the nearby homeless shelter approached her. They wanted to pump her gas for some money, but instead, Walser offered to take them to the zoo the following weekend. That trip marked the beginning of Horton’s Kids, now in its 30th year.
The early days were “very scrappy,” recalls Dan Walsh, who chairs the group’s board of directors. “Everything that got done was done in somebody’s spare time.”
Walsh worked for Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest when he first got involved with Horton’s Kids in 1997. He remembers the buses that shuttled congressional staffers from Capitol South Metro to Wellington Park so they could meet up with kids for tutoring.
Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, from Newt Gingrich to Jim Clyburn, have volunteered. So has Jake Tapper, who was a press secretary on the Hill in the ’90s.
Horton’s Kids is no longer the passion project of a single congressional staffer; over the years, it has served more than 1,600 children with help from more than 4,200 volunteers.
If anything, the group has strengthened its ties to the Capitol. Since 2001, Horton’s Kids has held some of its tutoring sessions in the Rayburn House Office Building. And on Wednesday night, when the group puts on its annual baseball-themed fundraiser at Nationals Park, several lawmakers — Clyburn, Chris Murphy, Kevin Brady, Cheri Bustos and Kevin McCarthy — will be billed as co-chairs.
Still, the gap between the Hill and Wellington Park, where Horton’s Kids opened a community resource center in 2011, has hardly closed. Eighty percent of adults in the neighborhood don’t have a high school diploma, according to Walsh, and the average annual household income is less than $10,000.
As for Woods, he’s come full circle — after graduating from Syracuse University in 2014, he returned to D.C. to manage community relations at KIPP DC, a public charter school. The job keeps him in touch with the volunteers and kids in the program that changed his path.
“That right there is what life is all about,” he says.