Person of the Week
President and Founder of The House, Inc., Student Leadership Center
I began noticing after school, children did not have a place to become positively engaged. I say, “HOPE — Hold On, Progress is En route.”
1. What led you to the mission of being the president and founder of The House, Inc. Student Leadership Center?
When the school bell rings after school, I know what happens. Most services students need are ended for the day. Counselors’ offices close. Kids have to get on buses. They still have questions about the day. They still have dilemmas. They’ve got hurt. The way families are evolving these days, they are not able to give assistance or they choose not to be involved.
I am a schoolteacher by degree. That is where my training began. I began noticing after school, children did not have a place to become positively engaged. The House, Inc. began out of a dream to provide programs with the ability to reap positive benefits in a variety of interrelated areas.
My husband and I found out that with the favor of asking, people had the opportunity to say, “No”, or they had the opportunity to say, “Yes”, to supporting a program that would support student leadership. So I presented the needs. For instance, I had a student who couldn’t graduate from college because she had a couple of hundred of dollars in bills left over – like a library fine. I said, “Oh no, no, no. That’s not going to happen.” So we found people that we could call and say, “This child is graduating from college. She is the valedictorian of her college class. This child needs help financially to graduate.” We helped her graduate.
Some of these kids need more than just financial services. They need medical services. Some of our kids need lots of things just to advance their goals. So my husband and I started asking the question, “OK. If we build a place, how are we going to get the kids?” We found an organization that was building a business complex. I told this person, “Look. I have no money. I have no kids yet. But I want to build a center for kids after school. I want to keep them positively engaged.” The man said, “OooooooK? You have no money. You have no equipment here for kids? You have no kids?” Yes. I had no kids and no money, but we were able to start The House, Inc. (Note: The House, Inc. was started ten years ago. To learn more about The House, Inc., click here.)
I went over to the outlet mall. I told them that I needed a TV on the weekends. I kept returning borrowing and returning. Finally after three years of doing that, they said to me, “Just keep the television, Helen.” Then I went to Sports Authority and said, “I need a basketball goal.” They said, “Well, who are YOU?” I told them, “I’m Helen McCormick with The House, Inc.” They said, “Well, what is The House? Does it look like a house?” I said, “No. It’s a warehouse. We don’t have any walls.” In fact the first year we didn’t have any heat. But the kids kept coming. In the summer we didn’t have air conditioning. We had big industrial fans. But the kids kept coming.
We would tell the kids’ folks about all this and tell them there are other organizations that had these things for their children. But they said, “Miss Helen, my kids know you love them. My kids know you’ve got their back. There isn’t another place for them to consider. They won’t have it.”
2. What does this mission mean to you?
There is value in the program for the kids. I can’t dream big enough. We have created a program a program that has guided thousands of students from elementary through college graduation. We offer before and after school programs for fourth through twelfth grade. We have onsite mental health and social services for preteens and teens and their families. We have a quality program that helps mentor students and protects their future and their influence.
After all these years we have had over 80,000 students who have come through this building. There is summer camp. Before and after school programs. Holidays. Non-traditional school. Weekends. We’ve laid wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery. We’ve made it work.
It means that I am showing them that there is a different choice and a different quality that they can make every day. Someone has to be out in front of them being their cheerleader and filling in the things that happen in the dash of their life – their beginning and their end. That middle part is so important — to make sure their choices matter. Their friendships are important. Putting their best foot forward is important.
A lot of kids are not taught this any more. Most of these kids are in the free lunch program at school. The stigma of that is embarrassing. They are hungry. We find that when thirty-four school buses arrive at The House, Inc., the kids get off the bus and they are looking forward to a hot meal. Once they get here we silence their stomachs and it is all business. I get excited to feed them and set up outcomes and make sure they are going to graduate from high school and have access to college.
We have a Cinderella Ball for our students. We collect formals and tuxedoes – everything that goes to a young person for a prom. We collect those year round and in the spring we have a Cinderella closet. Over one hundred students come for fittings. It is like a boutique. They get appointments. They get to try on their dress or their tuxedoes. They get special treatment, nail polish, their shoes shined by the Marines, the Army, the Coast Guard. We’re here in the D.C. area where we have a lot of military who are a part of our event.
When you see The House, Inc., and you see our students who are at risk and you see our students who have every day the choice to either quit or pursue and you go every year and see what they are able to do, it is an amazing program. They learn about taking care of one another and this is very important. They learn about taking of oneself and this is extremely important. They put forth their best and what is in their best interest to do.
3. What was your best day being the president and founder of The House, Inc. Student Leadership Center?
I pulled up to The House at six o’clock in the morning. There was a boy sleeping underneath one of our House passenger vans. At first, I didn’t realize he was a student. It could have been anybody at that time in the morning. I got out. It was snowing. It was wet.
He jumped up and said, “Miss Helen. Miss Helen. I’ve been here all night. The House is OK.” He was a high schooler in foster care. He told me, “My momma said to get out last night. I just didn’t want to take it any more so I came here. I knew that you would be here first thing in the morning to get me something warm to eat. So I came here knowing that you would be taking care of me.”
That student came in and there was another person fixing the breakfasts. I got some clothes for him to change into. The bus came and he got on the bus. He told me, “You won’t see me after school because my foster mother will call the police. The police will go to school and get me.” I told him, “Well. Guess where I’m going. I’m going to school with you. I’ll be right behind the bus and in my car. You get on the bus. You think about how you are going to make your day successful. I’m going to worry about the other things that are going to try to trip you up. You won’t be in jail. You will not be going any place. You will be back in The House this afternoon.”
I asked him, “Do you trust me?” He told me “Yah.” I asked him, “Do you believe me?” He said, “Yah.” I said, “So go to school. Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. I’ll be expecting you back here after school.” The school KNOWS that if a child is at The House and is acting up in the county system, they will call and we will discuss how to resolve the problems. They might call and say, “Do you know what happened here?” I’ll say, “Did you know that his mother shot his dad last night? Yes there is turmoil in that home. No he shouldn’t have done that but we can work it out.” They might say, “Thanks Miss Helen.” I’ll say, “Let me talk to the student in case he needs to come back with me and get a time out.”
I have students who have to go to school the next day after an attempted gang rape. I’ll tell them, “Ok. You are afraid to go to school. You still have to get your education.” The student will say, “WHY?” I say, “Why do you think? Because you are not going to let the perpetrators take away your future.” So my husband and I might decide to enroll them in a non traditional school for kids who think they can’t return to school or those who have been kicked out of school. You know what happens to kids who have been kicked out. They lose a whole year.
In my warehouse of 15,000 square feet, I have not one rule posted. You know why? Good behavior is expected not rewarded. I tell the kids, “You know what good behavior is. You know what stupid behavior is. So don’t do stupid. Don’t think you can trip somebody. Don’t think you can steal money. Don’t think that you can push somebody. I’m not going to put rules up here and insult you. I’m going to raise you up so that when people see you, they are going to say, ‘That student has good character.’”
4. What was your worst day being the president and founder of The House, Inc. Student Leadership Center?
Early on in this process, I went to one of my county supervisors to introduce myself. I said, “Hi. I’m Helen McCormick. I moved here from Little Rock, Arkansas. My husband and I are going to quit our jobs and open up a center for kids still in high school. I just wanted to introduce myself to you and tell you that we are here to help our students.” Two supervisors took my hand. Instead of shaking it, grabbed it and pushed away. You can tell when there is not an engagement there. They said, “You will never make it here.” We made it. We are a force of power and change that people don’t understand – how we are doing it. They have no idea.
5. How did you survive your worst day?
I am a person of faith. I believe there is a blessing over us. When I get up in the morning, I honor God in my life. He brings about an expectation multiplied. If I ask for a full table, I get two. If I need food today, I get a call from a person who says, “I’m now a manager at a food store. What do you need? Come and get it.”
I have companies that say, “We’ve never heard of you. You don’t have a sign.” I say, “It costs too much money for a sign and I need scholarship money to help kids get to school and get here after school.” I have principals that call and say, “Helen, I have a child who is homeless. He sleeps in a car. Can you take that child?” I say, “I don’t have enough money.” Then I go across the street to a business and say, “Can you sponsor a child after school and before school so we know that child’s needs are taken care of?”
If someone were to say, “Helen, what is your niche? What is your niche?” I would have to say that I don’t have a niche. I have to do whatever a child needs. I have to make happen whatever is possible when something is lacking. I say, “HOPE. HOPE. HOPE.” HOPE stands for “Hold On, Progress is En route.”
I have to protect those families that are here. They tell me, “Miss Helen. We got HOPE!” Their progress is en route! Our progress is en route! We’re holding on! I don’t have the heart to let them down.
This was taught by my parents. Sixty years ago, back in the day, my parents told me I could do things. They would say, “You’re the brightest kid. You’re the smartest kid. You’re the prettiest kid.” They all lied. But I was wrapped in positive encouragement. When the kids get off the bus we are the first to say, “Hi. How was your day?” The kids have said, “Miss Helen, that H.O.P.E. worked! I passed my test!” I’ll say, “Just don’t let fear happen to you. Now look. Our volunteers helped you on this test. When I was a kid, I would always pray before I took a test. God help me with my supernatural recall.” The kids would just laugh.
They had no idea. I would tell them, “Just try it. Try it today. You’ve done all the studying. You’ve made pretty good grades on all of your homework. So go in there with H.O.P.E., Hold On Progress is En route.” Then they get off the bus and come running in here – these five foot ten kids come in here – and tell me, “That supernatural stuff worked!” I just laugh. I go, “Well of course it does.”
God promises me that if I will stay close to Him, He will bring favor. I don’t do this for myself. I do service for others. When I speak at graduations or when I talk to someone who I know could make a monetary donation that will help keep the electric on here or pay my rent here or give me some pencils and papers and calculators that I need for the kids, or computers or updates or iPads, I look at them and go, I’m asking for the kids. If you could see their faces behind me, you would not have the heart to let them down. It’s up to you. I think of them all from the time I get up in the morning.
I’ll say, “We need to feed the kids pizzas today. The kids have worked so hard. It is close to graduation.” I go over to Papa John’s Pizza and I say, “I need fifty pizzas. I have eighty kids coming today. Would you be able in your budget to do fifty pizzas for the kids?” They can tell me no. I can say, “I understand. I can go to Pizza Hut.” They might say, “Get back in here. Can we do twenty?” I tell them, “Of course you could do twenty.”
I have a screen in my building. I put everybody’s logo that supports the kids. I support them and they support me. They have a powerful influence with the kids. The kids will say, “Miss Helen, Papa John’s came through. We’re going to have Papa John’s tonight.”
There is a big gang represented here. When we started in this building, there were bullet holes in the outside wall. The police came in and said, “You are just getting too close to a circle of kids who have the desire to belong. You are helping them break away and not take the initiation to gangs. (Our son was shot in the back the first year at a mall. It was late and closing time. He walked out and got shot in the back.)
The police said, “You’re getting so close to making a difference in kid’s lives.” We’re keeping them away from the mall. We’re keeping them away from parties. We’re giving them a safe place for basketball. We’re feeding them. We still have people who hate what we are doing. But what does that tell you? We were stupid enough to keep doing this. We have hundreds of kids in the building. It is safe. These are wonderful, wonderful days.
6. What advice do you have for someone who would like to become involved in yours or a similar program?
I would say follow your dreams and follow your passions. A passion is what wakes you up in the morning and doesn’t let you sleep at night. We started this because we saw the need. We could have kept our jobs and done this in addition to them. But we gave up our jobs and jumped into it wholeheartedly and full force. There is a ripple effect that keeps us doing it every morning.