After decades in the District, Hope House DC founder is retiring

A policeman talks to activists Carol Fennelly, left, and Dick Gregory, center, as the two kneel in front of the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, Jan. 14, 1991 after delivering a letter to the embassy urging a peaceful resolution to the Persian Gulf crisis. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)(AP/Doug Mills)

After a quarter-century of helping incarcerated fathers maintain connections with their children in D.C., a local organization founder is retiring to West Virginia.

Carol Fennelly spent 17 years working on behalf of the unhoused in the District before founding Hope House DC in 1998, spending almost a year writing about families that were affected by the closure of Lorton Prison.

The organization was started to help keep kids in contact with their dads who were being moved to prisons outside the Washington, D.C. area as the prison shut down. One of the first places they were sent to was Youngstown, Ohio.

Fennelly looked for solutions for these fathers, but didn’t find much.

“But I found some great ones for mothers in prison,” she told WTOP.

Fennelly gleaned ideas from a visit to a women’s prison in New York State including a program where moms could record books for their kids to play at home so children could have a bedtime story experience. So, she replicated it for Hope House dads.

“If mothers have it, dads should have it,” she said.

The organization has blossomed throughout its 25 years — from the time she sold her house and moved to Youngstown in the early days, to the challenges of video conferencing in the late 1990s.

“Back then, there was no broadband and there particularly was no broadband in rural areas where the prison was located,” Fennelly said. “That was challenging, to say the least. We could either do video or we could do audio, but we couldn’t do both.”

One of their current programs includes weeklong art camps where kids can spend time with their fathers inside prison walls and play games, eat meals together and work on a mural that focuses on activities they’d enjoy outside prison walls.

Her final camp wrapped up last week in Cumberland, Maryland.

“My last camp was pretty emotional,” she said. “We’ve been in that particular prison for 22 years. So yeah, it was very emotional, not just for the dads, but for the staff as well, because I have a lot of friends over there, and I won’t be going back.”

Fennelly said she was aiming to retire a year ago, but that didn’t work out as planned. But now?

“I’m 74-years-old. I’m old,” she said, chuckling. “You know, it’s time to retire.”

After their annual back-to-school party for Hope House Kids at a Z-Burger on Sunday, Fennelly announced she would be retiring in neighboring West Virginia.

“I have a cabin there and I’ll be going to my cabin, sort of off into the sunset, you know?”

Fennelly is leaving with plenty of gratitude to “all the people who have been so great to Hope House and to me over almost 50 years in Washington — from my days at the [homeless] shelter to now. All of our moms who work so hard to care for their kids, and show up for parties and things. I just I’m gonna miss all of you a lot.”

But Hope House DC will continue; just with a new director who starts on Sept. 1.

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