After a fire gutted Eastern Market last year, Capitol Hill residents began holding fundraisers for the merchants and donating money to an organization they knew they could trust: the Capitol Hill Community Foundation. Nicky Cymrot, president of the foundation, had helped to earn that trust over her nearly 20-year involvement with the group.
Cymrot first moved to the Hill about 40 years ago to work for then-Sen. Ralph
Yarborough (D-Texas). She later got into the real estate business. But one thing has been a constant over the years: her dedication to the neighborhood.
“This Capitol Hill community, one of its main treasures is not only its architecture — and it’s beautiful — but that the people who live here are outgoing and generous and interested in making this a welcoming community for everybody and making it as good as it could be,” Cymrot said.
Cymrot said that after the fire, she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. The level of concern was exhilarating and unparalleled, she said.
“It was gratifying to us that the community responded so generously to the human aspect of the fire and was of one mind — our Eastern Market had to keep going,” she said.
Cymrot has been active in the foundation since her husband, Steve, started the organization in 1989. The group originally was linked to the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals.
“It started off as a foundation for the business association, and that went on for a few years and then it started to grow, grow, grow and added more people outside of the business community,” she said.
The foundation now is devoted to collecting money from the community and giving grants to charities and other causes. Grants of $2,500 each are given out twice a year, with the grant money totaling somewhere from $200,000 to $250,000 annually.
“Basically, what it does is it raises money in the community and it gives it back out,” Cymrot said. “There are no administrative overhead expenses. It’s a volunteer organization, and all of the administration expenses are borne now by the board of directors. So any money anyone contributes to the foundation, 100 percent goes back out to the community.”
After the market fire, the CHCF collected about $500,000 to aid the market. “We did not initiate a single fundraiser. We were the recipients of many, many other fundraisers that people took the initiative to do,” Cymrot said.
[IMGCAP(1)]The money helped provide tables, chairs, scales and refrigeration trucks so that the displaced merchants of the South Hall could continue running their businesses.
“While others were in tears the day the Market burned, the Foundation already was mobilizing to raise funds, especially to assist the merchant community,” wrote Donna Scheeder, president of the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee in an e-mail. “Capitol Hill is lucky to have the foundation as a resource and to have Nicky and Steve and now their son as well, as its leadership.”
The CHCF also helped pay for an advertising campaign to let Washingtonians know that despite the blaze, the market was still in business.
In addition to aiding Eastern Market, the foundation recently helped upgrade several school libraries on Capitol Hill. The School Libraries Project began some two years ago at the suggestion of a parent-teacher organization and aimed to raise $2.5 million to renovate eight libraries that serve 2,500 children. The project was completed through fundraisers, including the annual Literary Soup event, in which Hill residents open their doors for book-themed dinner parties.
“[The library] was very chaotic, dark and cluttered,” Todd Cymrot, Nicky’s son-in-law and co-founder of the project, told Roll Call in October of the Peabody Early Childhood Center library. “It was hot — there was no air conditioning — and there was no working bathroom. Remember, this is a school for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds.”
The renovations tripled the amount of light in the library and added a bathroom and a computer lab. “During recess time, we have an increased number of students who prefer to stay in the library and read,” said Brandon Eatman, principal of the Capitol Hill Cluster. “We see students who, during school, would rather do library-related activities, like doing research or working on homework, rather than doing things they can do at home, like playing.”
Some money was left over from the project and will be used to fund grant requests from the libraries.
“A Friends of the School Libraries is now being organized, which will hopefully stay active and stay active with the librarians and with the libraries to be sure that they get what they need,” Nicky Cymrot said.
Her involvement in the community goes beyond CHCF. She also is active with the Old Naval Hospital Foundation. The organization recently was granted the rights to the decrepit building on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast that first served as a hospital during the Civil War, and it plans to turn the old building into a Hill Center that will provide classes and a cafe to the community.
A new facility for lifelong learning, cultural enrichment and community life, the Hill Center will offer a wide range of educational opportunities for people of all ages, Cymrot said.
The center has been in the planning stages for about five years and will include computer, language, music and drawing classes. According to Cymrot, some of the classes will be offered with the help of the Capitol Hill Computer Corner, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop and the Shakespeare Theatre. The center is expected to be open in about two years. Funding for the $8 million project will come from government and private sources, she said.
“The Capitol Hill Community has been waiting for years for the Old Naval Hospital to return to community use — the end is in sight!” she said.
Cymrot’s work in the Capitol Hill neighborhood through the years has earned her a deep appreciation of the people in the community.
“When you start putting things together around here, you find that the pool of talent is just beyond belief.”