Tireless advocate for homeless women and children to be honored by Georgetown University at MLK Day event

Black woman smiling at the camera wearing a red dress and pearls. Background is out of focus and depicts a classroom.

This article was first published by TheDCLine.org. 

As a newborn fresh out of the hospital and the last of five children, Sandra Jackson lay in a bassinet in her family’s home on S Street in Northwest, her parents and siblings huddled around her. Jackson tears up as she recalls the story one of her sisters later told about that moment. 

“My sister says she knew I was special, so I carry that with me,” says Jackson. “I don’t take it to mean that I’m special. I take it to mean that there was something special I needed to do and that I was purposed to do.” 

Growing up, Jackson learned that “Sandra” is derived from the Greek name Alexandra, which means “defender of mankind.” So, it was no surprise that Jackson grew up to be a social worker. 

Now, with more than two decades of experience in social services management in the D.C. area, Jackson, 64, serves as executive director of House of Ruth, which provides safe housing and other services for women and children in the District who have experienced homelessness and domestic abuse. 

In recognition of Jackson’s service, Georgetown University honored her with its 18th annual John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award on Jan. 20 as part of the Kennedy Center’s annual Let Freedom Ring Celebration. The award recognizes a local individual who exemplifies the values of Martin Luther King Jr. and the university, presented on the federal holiday that honors the civil rights icon.  

Since Jackson took charge in 2016, House of Ruth has increased the services it provides to clients by 31% and nearly completed its first-ever capital campaign for the construction of a new day care center, opening on Pennsylvania Avenue SE in Ward 7 this summer.  

“Under Sandra Jackson’s leadership, [House of Ruth] has been able to expand its work to help some of our city’s most vulnerable women and children rebuild their lives,” says Chris Murphy, Georgetown’s vice president for government relations and community engagement, whose office participates in the nomination process for the award. “I think Dr. King would be proud to see her honored with the Legacy of a Dream Award.” 

Three African-american toddlers sit at a classroom table and use crayons on a sheet of
House of Ruth served 1,048 women and children in 2018. Its capital campaign to pay for new, expanded facilities for its day care center is nearly complete. Photo Courtesy of House of Ruth

‘I heard the calling early’ 

Jackson’s father died when she was 14. By that time, the family had moved to Benning Heights in Southeast and her mother had left her job at a box factory in  D.C. to take a position at the U.S. Government Printing Office. Jackson describes her mother as “the connector” who hosted Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners for her extended family and cared for relatives when they were sick. 

“I heard the calling early,” says Jackson, a petite woman. “I saw firsthand what it was like to really serve others, provide for others and care for others.”  

She met her future husband on a playground in Benning Heights when she was about 12; he was a couple of years older. They were both students at Kelly Miller Middle School in Northeast. After school, he would walk her home, carrying her books. Jackson went on to Spingarn High School; he enrolled at what was then Phelps Vocational High School. She and her husband — the Rev. Alonzo Jackson Sr., pastor of St. James Baptist Church in Capitol Heights, Maryland — have been married now for 42 years. 

Jackson, who became executive director three years after joining House of Ruth in 2013 as director of operations, spent the early years of her career working in human resources — recruiting nurses for a couple of hospitals in the District.  

But, by the late 1980s, she had found her true calling. She took a job at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Washington — visiting at-risk families in their homes — and earned a master’s degree in social work from Howard University in 1993. She served as regional director of Catholic Charities’ D.C. Family Services for five years.  

Jackson left Catholic Charities in 2002 for a job as an administrator with the District’s Child and Family Services Agency, where she worked for a decade with children in foster care. “Permanency became near and dear to my heart, making sure that children found good homes if they couldn’t go back to their own,” she says. 

A Georgetown professor helped to start House of Ruth 

More than 35 years before Jackson joined House of Ruth, the organization was created with help from Georgetown sociology professor Veronica Maz, who was also instrumental in starting D.C. social services agencies Martha’s Table and So Others Might Eat (SOME). Once described by Washington Post columnist George F. Will as a “hyperkinetic fireplug,” Maz died in June 2014 at the age of 89.  

According to her Washington Post obituary, Maz took a couple of her students to D.C.’s skid row on a wintry day in 1970. Before she left, a man fell down in front of her. Assuming he was drunk, she walked around him, got in her car and drove home. Haunted by the experience, she chastised herself for not helping him. She later left academia and started working on the streets of D.C. 

Bolstered by Maz’s advocacy, House of Ruth opened in 1976 as a shelter for abused women, housing eight homeless women on its first night in the basement of a Massachusetts Avenue NW row house, according to the organization’s website. At the time, the District had only a few shelters for men; there were none dedicated to serving women or their children. 

Now, in addition to a day care center and a counseling center, House of Ruth runs 14 housing programs — seven for women and children, and seven for single women. The programs provide “a continuum of housing,” says Jackson. The housing includes apartment buildings that are staffed 24 hours a day by House of Ruth as well as apartments scattered around the District, where women and children receive services in their homes. Women who no longer need the services of House of Ruth can stay in their apartments at affordable rents, avoiding the disruption of yet another move. 

In 2018, House of Ruth served 1,048 women and children, offering safe housing to 417 women and children a night in its programs, according to the organization’s website. House of Ruth’s counseling center offers therapy to all trauma survivors, regardless of gender, providing individual counseling and therapy to more than 100 survivors each month and group counseling to an additional 45 each month. 

Not satisfied with the status quo 

Tara Villanueva, director of House of Ruth’s day care center, says she could tell from the moment she first met Jackson in 2013 that this woman would be a strong advocate for homeless and abused women and children. 

Jackson was visiting the center, known as Kidspace, for the first time. “I could see from the look on her face that she knew the place wasn’t working for us,” says Villanueva. “She knew we were doing great work in the building, but the building was in bad shape. She wasn’t satisfied.” 

At the time, Kidspace was in its original location on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, where it launched in 1996. In the months ahead, House of Ruth faced a licensing deadline that would require substantial renovations to keep the center open, so the agency moved to several modular buildings owned by New Macedonia Baptist Church on Alabama Avenue SE.  

After about 18 months, the church decided to reclaim the buildings and House of Ruth was once again in search of a new location. Fortunately, the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation had a building on Savannah Street SE that had recently been vacated. Kidspace has been renting it since September 2018. 

“Savannah Street is much better than what we’ve had in the past,” says Villanueva, who first came to House of Ruth as a volunteer when she was 18. “But it’s still not 100%.”  

At its current location, Kidspace can only accommodate 44 children. When the center moves to the new building, which is under construction at the original site on Pennsylvania Avenue, Kidspace will enroll up to 88 children. The new facility will have a community room that neighborhood residents can use for meetings and playgrounds for children enrolled in the House of Ruth program as well as for those who live in the community. 

Since the start of the capital campaign in 2017, House of Ruth has raised $7 million for the construction of Kidspace. With $230,000 left to go, Jackson meets often with potential donors, promoting the organization’s mission and talking about the needs of the women and children in her care. 

Jackson says she wants the same things for House of Ruth clients and their children that she wanted for her three children when they were growing up — a safe home and high-quality child care. Nothing less will do, she insists, because the stakes are too high for women and children who have suffered the trauma of homelessness and domestic abuse.  

“Many of our moms experienced trauma as children that was never dealt with,” she notes. “Then they experience domestic violence and homelessness on top of that. Their children have been impacted and have very special needs. If they leave House of Ruth and can’t get affordable housing and that causes them to spiral again, that’s not fair to the family.” 

Five women smile at the camera. From left to right a black woman wears a peach colored blouse. A white woman next to her wears a white blouse. A white woman next to her wears a blue shirt and a black jacket. The white woman next to her wears a white dress with a black belt. The woman next to her wears a black shirt with a floral patterned jacket.
Jackson with donors at a 2019 reception for House of Ruth. Photo Courtesy of House of Ruth

Caring for her staff 

Jackson notes that the jobs of House of Ruth teachers and social workers are demanding. To support her staff, she provides opportunities for them to participate in leadership and credentialing programs. Under her guidance, House of Ruth has developed partnerships with other social services agencies around the city. 

House of Ruth staffer Seteria Hollinshed, who coordinates a program that provides dormitory-style housing for single women in a building that was once a D.C. public school, says the partnerships have enhanced the organization’s visibility. House of Ruth “is more at the forefront in discussions about domestic violence and homelessness,” notes Hollinshed. “Other agencies are calling for our expertise in different areas.” 

As part of the Legacy of a Dream award, Georgetown is working with House of Ruth to develop a yearlong partnership tailored to the organization’s needs, according to a university spokesperson. Partnership programs for previous awardees have included symposiums, scholarships for employees to participate in executive leadership programs at the university, and the development of local legislative strategies to advance an organization’s priorities, the spokesperson notes. 

Jackson commutes to the House of Ruth offices on Northwest D.C.’s Thomas Circle from her home in Solomons, Maryland, about 90 minutes away. She doesn’t mind the long drive because it gives her time to work out issues that House of Ruth clients are facing. “I’m always thinking about what our families need to be successful.”   

Chris Robinson, coordinator of House of Ruth’s Hope Rising housing program, says she doesn’t know when Jackson finds time to sleep.  

Jackson acknowledges that the hours are long, but she’s sustained by the impact that House of Ruth makes on the lives of women and children. “We don’t always see that impact right away but sometimes there are glimmers, little pieces that shine, and I tell myself that’s why I’m doing this.” 

Jackson was presented the award on Jan. 20 as part of the Kennedy Center’s annual Let Freedom Ring Celebration, a free, ticketed musical tribute that featured Grammy Award winner Chaka Khan and the Let Freedom Ring Choir. 

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