Let’s End Homelessness Together: The Daniel and Karen Mayers’ Challenge

Daniel and Karen Mayers

Daniel and Karen Mayers

There was a time when ending homelessness in the District of Columbia seemed impossible. Today, many people, including Daniel and Karen Mayers, believe that goal is within reach. That is why they have donated $100,000 to begin the Dan and Karen Mayers’ Challenge. The Challenge aims to raise $1 million for the Partnership to End Homelessness. It is with a sense of both urgency and optimism that Dan and Karen challenge others to join them in ensuring that homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring in DC.

“In the past, homelessness was seen as an intractable problem,” says Dan, a leader in charitable giving in DC for nearly six decades. “Today, we have the leadership, tools, plan, and political will to end homelessness. The only thing missing is critical resources.”

“It’s easy to feel overwhelmed trying to address the many important issues facing our city,” adds Karen. “Here is a concrete problem with a concrete solution.”

In partnership with the District government’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, The Community Foundation has identified an effective way for the local philanthropic community to play a significant role in ending homelessness. The core elements of the Partnership include coordination and engagement of the local business and philanthropic communities, a grant fund to support expenses that transition individuals and families from shelters into homes, and an impact investment that aims to increase the supply of deeply affordable and supportive housing for the District’s most marginalized residents.

A Long History of Philanthropy

Dan and Karen credit The Community Foundation with informing their philanthropy and introducing them to the region’s most effective nonprofits going back many years. Dan is The Community Foundation’s longest serving board member, having previously served as chair of the Board of Directors and of the Governance Board of The Community Foundation’s September 11 Survivors’ Fund. A retired senior partner at the Washington, DC, law firm WilmerHale, he was board chair of the Harvard Law School Visiting Committee, Legal Action Center, National Child Resource Center, National Symphony Orchestra, Sidwell Friends School and WETA.

A retired social worker, Karen also has seen the District’s challenges up close while serving as board chair of House of Ruth, vice chair of Iona Senior Services, board member of Home Care Partners and the Higher Achievement Program and, most recently, as a member of The Community Foundation’s Sharing DC Advisory Committee.

More and more, Dan and Karen have focused their philanthropy on groups serving low-income individuals and families. Dan helped to guide The Community Foundation’s Neighbors in Need Fund, established during the recession to strengthen the region’s safety-net providers and services, and the couple were major donors to the fund.

A Lasting Impact

In making the inaugural gift to launch the Dan and Karen Mayers’ Challenge, they hope to inspire others who share their concern for the District’s marginalized residents. They also are motivated by a desire to have a lasting impact in the city they have called home for 60 years.

Dan and Karen recognize that their gift—a substantial percentage of their philanthropic dollars—is just a beginning. But, says Karen, “we have no doubt that the community is up to this challenge.” So far, the Challenge has raised $600,000 from the Mayers’ family, friends and The Community Foundation’s Board of Trustees.

“This is what community foundations do—they respond to community need,” adds Dan. “Time and again, I’ve witnessed The Community Foundation galvanize the generosity of concerned residents. I’ve seen compassionate people rally around urgent community needs, from natural disasters to 9/11 to the recession.”

Bruce McNamer, The Community Foundation’s President and CEO, echoed Dan and Karen’s optimism: “It’s hard to fathom living in such a wealthy society and not coming together to solve this problem. Together, let’s ensure that every one of our neighbors has a safe and stable place to call home.”

Learn More

To learn more about the Partnership to End Homelessness, visit EndHomelessnessDC.org. If you would like to contribute to the Mayers’ Challenge, please contact Angela Willingham, Associate Vice President of Development or give online.

 

How Do We End Youth Homelessness in DC?

Guest Post by Ramina Davidson, Director of Housing Stability & Youth Initiatives, DC Alliance of Youth Advocates (DCAYA)

The Greater Washington Community Foundation and our community of donors have funded DCAYA since 2005, when The Community Foundation served as DCAYA’s fiscal sponsor during the organization’s development. Funding has been awarded for general operating support, program support and organizational capacity building, as well as youth civic engagement, youth homelessness/housing and youth workforce-related initiatives.


Washington, DC has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation. The 2018 Youth Count DC estimated that more than 1,300 unaccompanied youth, youth separated from family, and youth heads of household were experiencing homelessness or housing instability (e.g. couch surfing or doubled up) in September 2018. Data from DC’s education agencies also revealed almost 6,000 students enrolled in school are homeless or housing unstable. How do we end youth homelessness in the District of Columbia?

Homelessness or housing instability, generally, is the denial of the right to stable, safe housing. For youth, this denial often manifests through multiple, recurring inequities in the systems that support families and youth (e.g. educational agencies, child and family services agencies) and societal inequities generally (e.g. racism, homophobia, generational poverty). In order to correct systems inequities, power over those systems must be ceded to those individuals the systems have failed to serve.

Over the last decade, DCAYA has steadily been working to shift power to the youth who are experiencing homelessness and housing instability themselves. This led to the creation of DC’s Interagency Council on Homelessness’ Youth Committee, a committee where dozens of organizations, agencies, advocates, and individuals work together to end youth homelessness—including youth who are directly affected by these issues.

In Spring 2017, in partnership with the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH), The Community Foundation hosted a special event to release Solid Foundations DC, the  District’s first-ever strategic plan to prevent and end youth homelessness . Solid Foundations DC is the first data-driven youth homelessness plan in the country.

In Spring 2017, in partnership with the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH), The Community Foundation hosted a special event to release Solid Foundations DC, the District’s first-ever strategic plan to prevent and end youth homelessness. Solid Foundations DC is the first data-driven youth homelessness plan in the country.

Last year, through persistent advocacy, DC’s youth homelessness system saw several advancements inching us closer to shifting the balance of power. The most notable advancement was the establishment of “Through the Eyes of Youth,” a workgroup of the Youth Committee and DC’s first advisory group of youth with lived experience of homelessness or housing instability. Tasked with guiding the Youth Committee’s implementation of Solid Foundations DC, DC’s first comprehensive plan to end youth homelessness, these youth are paid advisors who share their expertise regarding failures and successes of the systems meant to serve them. These advisory group members guide all aspects of the plan, from bettering the annual homeless youth census to improving resource allocation to developing new and innovative programs.

For example, inspired by feedback from the youth advisory group, the system improved the implementation of its annual homeless youth census, Youth Count DC, to reveal a clearer picture of how young people experience homelessness. For the first time, the census captured where youth have stayed in the past, as well as where they think they may stay in the future. As a result, the total number of youth experiencing homelessness and housing instability rose by hundreds, reflecting more accurate counting that gives policymakers a better understanding of the causes of youth homelessness, and thus better ability to implement successful interventions.

In addition, system improvements included development of three new youth homelessness initiatives: Rapid Rehousing for Youth, Extended Transitional Housing (a new longer-term housing program), and a Drop-In Center that provides 24-hour care. Because DCAYA was able to secure full funding for all new projects in 2018, these new initiatives are currently being implemented and will ensure that hundreds more youth in DC have access to tailored resources than in years prior.

DC’s youth homelessness services system continues to gain momentum in its effort to end youth homelessness. Through collaborative education and advocacy, more partners join in the fight to end youth homelessness every day, and we couldn’t do this work without the support of funders like the Greater Washington Community Foundation. Driving major system change requires stable, multi-year investments. Realizing the change we seek is not a one- or even two-year endeavor. The multi-year funding support and thought partnership of the Greater Washington Community Foundation has been integral to the progress our community has made.

As we continue work to transfer power over systems that serve youth experiencing homelessness and housing instability into the hands of those youth themselves, we know we must not rest on our laurels. A seat at the table is a start, but our work is not done until youth are calling the meeting.

Let’s Address the “Hidden” Issues Undermining our Kids’ Futures

By Agnes Leshner, Steering Committee member of the Children’s Opportunity Fund and Board member of 4Montgomery’s Kids


“The child may not remember, but the body does.” 

This quote stuck with me after watching the documentary, Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope How does one truly overcome trauma?  How can we break cycles of poverty and toxic stress from perpetuating across generations?

Still from the film  Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope.

Still from the film Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope.

These questions have been at the heart of my 25-year career in Child Welfare Services of Montgomery County, MD.  That is why I was so pleased to join the most recent Funders’ Roundtable gathering, which featured a rich discussion with local foundation leaders and Community Foundation donors after watching Resilience

Resilience centers on a seminal study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente which demonstrates how high exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can wreak havoc on children’s brains and bodies. In addition to hindering academic achievement, exposure to multiple traumatic childhood events (such as abuse, neglect, persistent hunger, parental conflict, mental illness, and substance abuse, etc.) can result in long-term negative effects on learning, behavior, and health.

Many attendees were shocked to learn…

  • ACEs are common.  In fact, one in four people have had at least one adverse childhood experience. 

  • Individuals with three ACEs were found to be twice as likely to develop heart disease.

  • Individuals with four ACEs were found to be four times as likely to suffer from depression.

  • Individuals with six ACEs have a 20 years lower life expectancy.

For many low-income children ACEs are even more damaging. Experiencing a high number of ACES alongside additional challenges, such as racism and community violence, without the buffer of supportive adult relationships, can cause toxic stress.  While we all need a certain amount of stress to promote positive growth, children whose stress responses are constantly active due to ACEs actually experience physiological changes to the brain that can disrupt learning, change behavior, and even modify their DNA. Because of this linkage, the American Academy of Pediatrics asserts that ACES are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat for children in the United States.

But history is not destiny.  The studies around ACEs have led schools, healthcare providers, nonprofits, and social service agencies to try bold new interventions. Here are some examples:

  • The Center for Youth Wellness in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco, CA – a traditionally underserved community - has established a protocol to screen all its pediatric patients for ACEs. Center staff work with local social service providers to pilot treatments for toxic stress and share their findings nationally.

  • In New Haven, CT, Strong Elementary School partnered with the Center for Post Traumatic Stress to bring Miss Kendra’s List to students beginning in kindergarten. This program teaches children the norms of child safety and gives them an outlet to express their worries to guardian figure named Miss Kendra, a fictional character who has overcome adversity and demonstrated resiliency. ALIVE Counselors write back to every child to help build their inner strength.

  • In the early 2000s, over 30 counties in Washington state brought together educators, social workers, parents, police officers, and healthcare professionals to spur education, dialogue, and community building around ACEs. By implementing specific strategies, the counties were able to significantly lower suicide rates, incidents of domestic violence, and youth arrests, which has saved the state $1.4 billion over 10 years.

If you are passionate about this issue, please join us!  Contact Kimberly Rusnak, Project Director of the Children’s Opportunity Fund to learn more about innovative strategies at work right here in our local community and help us bring together more people who will want to use these findings to improve the lives of children throughout our Montgomery County community.

After the screening of  Resilience,  the Community Foundation hosted a post-film discussion with Anna Hargrave, Executive Director in Montgomery County, Mindi Jacobson, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Future Link, Diego Uriburu, Executive Director of Identity, Dr. Carrie Zilcoski, Executive Director of Aspire Counseling, and Terrill North, Executive Director of Montgomery County Collaboration Council.

After the screening of Resilience, the Community Foundation hosted a post-film discussion with Anna Hargrave, Executive Director in Montgomery County, Mindi Jacobson, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Future Link, Diego Uriburu, Executive Director of Identity, Dr. Carrie Zilcoski, Executive Director of Aspire Counseling, and Terrill North, Executive Director of Montgomery County Collaboration Council.

Forward With Hope: Remembering 2nd LT. Richard W. Collins III

Guest Post by Richard Collins II

On May 20, 2017, a local tragedy occurred when 2nd Lieutenant Richard W. Collins III was fatally stabbed in an apparent hate crime three days before he was set to graduate from Bowie State University. We are honored to share this post from his parents, Richard and Dawn Collins, who have decided to pay tribute to their son’s legacy through a memorial fund at The Community Foundation.


Richard Collins II

Richard Collins II

We first learned of the Greater Washington Community Foundation through a long-time family friend who happens to be an attorney.  Following the tragic death of our son, my wife and I contacted the foundation to discuss establishing a foundation to continue his legacy and build a lasting tribute to honor our son’s memory.

Our vision for creating our foundation was two-fold.  First, we believe that it is important for us to make sure that our son’s life is given purpose even though he can no longer be present with us physically.  While the pain of no longer being able to speak with him or hear his voice is at times overwhelming, the work involved in continuing his legacy through our foundation provides us with some measure of comfort. 

Secondly, we intend to use our foundation as a vehicle of change through which private citizens are educated of their civic empowerment under the law in the communities where they live. It is intended to raise individual awareness of the civic duty of all of us to acquire and act upon the knowledge of the law regarding individual rights and protections. In addition, we must hold our elected officials and civic institutions accountable to ensure that the law protect, respect, and value the right to life of all citizens.

We partnered with The Community Foundation when we realized we did not know anything about starting a foundation on our own. We concluded we’d be able to get up and running faster if we used the experience of an established organization. 

2nd Lieutenant Richard W. Collins III

2nd Lieutenant Richard W. Collins III

We officially launched our foundation four days prior to our son’s 25th birthday on December 12, 2018.  Although taking this step provided us with a sense of accomplishment, it was also a bittersweet reminder of the reason that we found ourselves on this path in life. 

As the date marking the second anniversary of our son’s murder approaches, we still struggle to understand why God chose our family to experience this horrific ordeal.  It is a date that for us marks the month of May with dread rather than the anticipation that normally accompanies the spring season.  It is our hope and prayer that at some point, our heartbreak will transform itself into a state of consciousness that provides us with a sense of peace.  We feel it is our purpose to stay connected with our son by turning sorrow into an opportunity to bless the lives of others.  Our goal is to use the platform we have been placed on to bring attention to the need for confronting the challenge represented by hate and bias violence and to help provide education opportunities through our foundation.  We believe our foundation provides us the best avenue to have a positive impact in the lives of people and in their communities.

Feeling at Home: Going on a Sharing Montgomery Site Visit

Guest Post By Bobbi Shulman

Editor’s Note: Sharing Montgomery is a strategic, donor-led funding effort for community members who want to give where they live. This year the Sharing Montgomery Fund granted out $385,000 to 62 nonprofits that provide educational, workforce development, safety-net or capacity-building services in Montgomery County. Sharing Montgomery Committee members not only review grant applications – they go out into the community to visit the nonprofits making a difference for low-income children, youth and families. In our latest grant round, the Sharing Montgomery Committee went on 33 site visits from October 2018 to March 2019. Bobbi Shulman contributed this post to share her personal experience serving on the committee.


I’ve been on the Sharing Montgomery Committee since 2015. My family has been connected to The Community Foundation for more than five years, beginning when we started our foundation. I particularly enjoy going on site visits because I am constantly amazed by the depth, scope, and professionalism with which organizations do their jobs. 

Last January, I visited Rebuilding Together Montgomery County with fellow Sharing Montgomery Committee members. Rebuilding Together offers low-income homeowners (50% of area median income) safe and healthy home repairs at no cost to the recipient. In 2018, they completed 240 projects in 113 homes.

I was under the impression that Rebuilding Together was all about construction and repair of homes.  I had no idea of the aggressive wrap-around services they provide by becoming actively involved with the homeowner and engaging a variety of other non-profits to provide them needed services, including facility maintenance. It wasn’t until we conducted a site visit to Jill’s home that I fully understood the depth of their work. Due to unfortunate circumstances, Jill’s house had deteriorated to the point where the house was condemned, and she was forced to move in with friends. Rebuilding Montgomery learned of her difficult situation and pitched in to repair drywall, electrical, plumbing, flooring, and more. The ultimate success of the project allowed Jill to avoid permanent homelessness and return to live in her own home in safe and healthy conditions.

This deeper connection to the community continues to give back, as evidenced by Jill telling Rebuilding Together she hopes to give back by volunteering and paying it forward.

What I learned by visiting Rebuilding Together is just one example of the surprises uncovered in site visits! For the past 40 or so years, my work has been on the policy level, particularly in workforce development.  Sharing Montgomery has given me the opportunity to observe organizations doing the work on a grassroots level.  I appreciate the opportunity to provide input into improving the grantmaking process.  I have seen many positive changes in the quality of the grant applications and in the process of evaluating them. 

I’m so glad that Sharing Montgomery has brought me in contact with a group of people who care about improving the lives of residents of the county.

Bobbi Shulman (the fifth person on the right side of this photo) and other members of the Sharing Montgomery Committee visit Interfaith Works, another nonprofit in Montgomery County.

Bobbi Shulman (the fifth person on the right side of this photo) and other members of the Sharing Montgomery Committee visit Interfaith Works, another nonprofit in Montgomery County.

Fighting Hunger, Feeding Hope

Anna Hargrave, The Community Foundation Executive Director, Montgomery County, and Jackie DeCarlo, Chief Executive Officer of Manna Food Center.

Anna Hargrave, The Community Foundation Executive Director, Montgomery County, and Jackie DeCarlo, Chief Executive Officer of Manna Food Center.

On Thursday, March 28th, the Manna Food Center saluted The Community Foundation as its Community Partner of the Year.  We were proud to accept this award on behalf of all our fundholders who have generously supported Manna over the years as well as the many contributors to our Neighbors in Need Montgomery Fund. Collectively, all those gifts over the last 20 years have tallied up to nearly $1 million. 

Our partnership with the Manna Food Center has evolved significantly in recent years.  A key turning point was in Fall 2008, when the economic downturn was heating up.  We were disturbed to hear that Manna was experiencing a 40% increase in demand.  In fact, people who used to donate during the holidays had to turn to Manna for help.

Cliff White, a newcomer to our Grants Committee at that time, challenged The Community Foundation to do more. 

“Many of us have a financial cushion and are able to weather an economic storm of this magnitude,” he said. “And for those of us who are, we need to give more than ever.”

Believing that people would step up if they were made aware of the growing needs, Cliff helped lead the creation of our Neighbors in Need Montgomery Fund to bolster support for the county’s safety-net providers. This effort galvanized donors of all levels (from $5 to $50,000) by providing them with an easy mechanism to support our key safety-net nonprofits providing food, shelter, clothing, and emergency assistance to prevent evictions.  For Manna in particular, our support enabled them to quickly replenish their supply of food while the need rose exponentially.

After the 2008 economic downturn, the Neighbors in Need Montgomery steering committee decided to take stock of its investments and explore what would be the most strategic use of our dollars going forward.  After listening sessions with community partners, the group challenged itself to pursue giving opportunities which both respond to the immediate needs of our neighbors in crisis while also transforming our safety-net systems to serve more people effectively.

Photo courtesy of Manna Food Center.

Photo courtesy of Manna Food Center.

Again, the Manna Food Center stepped up.  While impressively serving 30,000 people between their headquarters, 6 satellite locations, and 11 partner drop-off sites, they understood those efforts only met about half the need in Montgomery County. To reach even more deeply into our underserved communities, they requested start-up funds to convert a retired school bus into an innovative new kitchen-classroom and mobile food pantry on wheels.  During its inaugural year, this first-of-its-kind bus (nicknamed “Manny”) brought fresh produce to 300 County residents, including many isolated low-income seniors. It also hosted 1,238 class participants in hands-on cooking classes, helping kids learn to enjoy healthy and delicious veggies. 

Photos of programs, staff and volunteers inside Manna Food Center’s bus that serves as a kitchen-classroom and mobile food pantry on wheels. Photos courtesy of Manna Food Center.

Photos of programs, staff and volunteers inside Manna Food Center’s bus that serves as a kitchen-classroom and mobile food pantry on wheels. Photos courtesy of Manna Food Center.

The most rewarding aspect of our work at The Community Foundation is helping people connect with high-impact local nonprofits and discover the joy of making an impact in our home region.  We are grateful to the Manna Food Center for being a great partner for everyone who wants to fight hunger and foster hope throughout our community. 

Victories in Advocacy

What do paid sick leave in Maryland, limiting drinking water contamination in Virginia, and protecting housing for Chinese Americans in DC’s Chinatown all have in common? These are victories that were made possible by advocacy, led by our nonprofit partners.

Advocacy—activities that can influence public policy, including work connecting community members to other decision-makers—is a key tool we use to build thriving communities.

“Investing in advocacy is a critical part of creating real and lasting social change,” says Silvana Straw, Senior Community Investment Officer and Philanthropic Advisor at The Community Foundation. “Advocacy efforts increase public awareness and public will, increase public and private funding, and strengthen public policy.”

One example of a recent victory is the work of Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), which we have helped fund. WIN’s campaign in DC’s Northwest One neighborhood engaging community residents and leaders in housing advocacy, led to a plan to build 518 units of affordable housing at 33 K Street NW, formerly Temple Courts. WIN and former tenants have been working with the developer to secure jobs commitments for former and current tenants.

Building on 30 years of experience, including advocacy which preserved $80 million of public funding for safety net services in the region, Straw’s current work focuses on housing and ending homelessness.

DCFPI is a key partner of the Way Home: the campaign to end chronic homelessness in Washington DC and helps organize major advocacy events led by the campaign.

DCFPI is a key partner of the Way Home: the campaign to end chronic homelessness in Washington DC and helps organize major advocacy events led by the campaign.

Straw also works with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI), a key partner in the fight for affordable housing and ending homelessness in DC. Their research revealed that in the past decade DC lost more than half of its affordable housing. Last year DCFPI laid out a blueprint for the investments needed to fully address DC’s housing needs. DCFPI’s research shows that extremely low-income families face the greatest need and supports advocacy for DC’s Local Rent Supplement Program, including a 2019 increase which was the largest in years.

Another victory is thanks to Housing Counseling Services (HCS). Their advocacy has helped tenants at Wah Luck House, mostly Chinese American seniors, keep their housing in DC’s Chinatown. They helped tenants exercise their Purchase Rights when their building went up for sale. Ultimately, tenants successfully negotiated a contract with the purchaser that preserves the HUD subsidy for 20 years and guaranteed an entire building upgrade.

Workforce development remains another key advocacy area for The Community Foundation. Benton Murphy, Senior Director, Community Investment, says,

“Over my years at The Community Foundation, my grants portfolio has included a large number of advocacy projects focused on things like encouraging transparency in our local and state government funding and budgets, advocating for better working conditions and rights for undocumented workers and day laborers, and helping more adults with literacy challenges receive better, more targeted education and job training supports.”

Last March, members of Job Opportunities Task Force spent the day in Annapolis, marching, advocating, and meeting with legislators to advance key issues, including colleges and universities removing the arrest/conviction question from applications.

Last March, members of Job Opportunities Task Force spent the day in Annapolis, marching, advocating, and meeting with legislators to advance key issues, including colleges and universities removing the arrest/conviction question from applications.

Some recent workforce victories include the passage of the Maryland Healthy Working Families Act. This act will require employers with 15 or more employees to earn up to seven days of paid sick days in one year thanks to work alongside Job Opportunities Task Force and Maryland Center on Economic Policy. Another victory with these groups was the passage of the Maryland Fair Access to Education Act that requires colleges and universities who do not use a third-party admissions application to remove the arrest/conviction question from the initial admissions application, ensuring more equitable access to education.

In DC, the DC Adult and Family Literacy Coalition led by a Steering Committee (Academy of Hope Public Charter School, Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, DC Public Library, Literacy Volunteers & Advocates, So Others Might Eat, Southeast Ministry and YWCA National Capital Area) convened at the Community Foundation’s offices, successfully advocated for the District to provide free public transportation to adult learners. This is important because many students miss class and fail to complete their programs if they don't have bus or subway fare. The 2018 DC budget included $2 million so that adult learners can travel for free using public transportation to and from class

Advocacy remains a key practice for community foundations and nonprofits to make the region more equitable for all our neighbors, including our most vulnerable populations.

To read about advocacy in action, check out this blog post from the Potomac Riverkeeper Network about how they worked to ensure passage of a bill to properly dispose of more than 27 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash currently sitting in holding ponds, safeguarding Virginia residents at risk of toxic contamination from pond leakage.

Protecting Our Community from Unsafe Drinking Water

Guest Post by Emily Franc, Vice President of Development/Philanthropy, Potomac Riverkeeper Network (PRKN)

The Greater Washington Community Foundation manages The Spring Creek Environmental and Preservation Fund, of which the Potomac Riverkeeper Network was a grantee in 2019, 2018 and 2016. The Spring Creek fund was created to support local nonprofit organizations with a demonstrated track record in successfully preserving, protecting or encouraging sustainable use of exceptional natural or built environments in the Greater Washington region, particularly those environments affecting low-income populations.


Possum Point is a sleepy rural community of families and military veterans who live a simple life along Quantico Creek and the Potomac River. Dan and Patty Marrow chose to raise their three children on Possum Point Road because they believed it was a safe, wholesome community. Little did they know that carcinogens had been leaching from toxic coal ash ponds owned by the nearby Dominion Power Plant through ground water, slowly poisoning their drinking wells.  Residents of Possum Point and other communities across Virginia were unaware of the dangers of living next to coal ash ponds.  

That is until newly hired Potomac Riverkeeper, Dean Naujoks, came on the scene in 2015, fresh from battling Duke Energy and its leaking ash ponds in North Carolina. Those lessons learned proved invaluable in the fight to bring polluters to justice and uphold regulations that protect human health and our drinking water supply.

We assume when we turn on our tap, clean water will come out.  The Clean Water Act legitimizes our right to clean water, but right here in the Washington, DC, region, our Riverkeepers uncover illegal pollution regularly.  Ensuring enforcement of Clean Water laws, Riverkeepers become the last line of defense, protecting our waterways on the public’s behalf.  

Photos from Possum Point, showing ash piles being bulldozed into Pond D. Photos by Alan Lehman, Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

What Dean uncovered at Possum Point was alarming – water containing heavy metals called seeps had been leaking from unlined ash ponds for decades into the creek.  Independent lab test results of private drinking wells around Possum Point, commissioned and paid for by Potomac Riverkeeper Network (PRKN), proved “untreated water from the wells at the properties addressed [on] Possum Point Road should not be used for potable purposes.” The wells were contaminated by a cocktail of carcinogenic metals linked to coal ash proving ground water contamination had moved off-site into residential drinking wells. 

“It is not easy to tell someone you believe their drinking wells are contaminated and unknowingly poisoning them,” said Naujoks, “but at the same time they have a right to know if their water is safe to drink!”

With growing momentum, PRKN hosted public forums attended by hundreds of people, engaged elected officials, and mobilized coalition partners and the public to join our “Move Your Ash” coal ash campaign. Property owners on Possum Point Road became outspoken after learning that their children had been exposed to unsafe well water for decades. Our coalition’s outreach committee generated over 1,000 calls, emails, and letters to elected officials in support of coal ash legislation.

In January of this year, the Virginia legislature passed a bill requiring at least 7 million of the 30 million tons of coal ash in the state to be recycled and the rest safely landfilled within 15 years! Without a Riverkeeper conducting investigations, informing the public, and pressuring state agencies to take action, these decades of unimpeded pollution would have continued.

This story is just one of dozens of toxic threats we investigate annually.  Taking the time to deeply investigate and understand the nature of threats to water quality, while locating the actual individual sources of pollution is critical to our approach, credibility, and success.

We are grateful for the support of the Greater Washington Community Foundation’s family of donors and the Spring Creek Environmental Fund for their stalwart support of our efforts.  Together, we took on Dominion and took back our right to clean water.

Potomac Riverkeeper Network works to protect the public’s right to clean water in our rivers and streams by stopping pollution to promote safe drinking water, protecting healthy river habitats, and enhancing public use and enjoyment. Learn more.