Community Engagement: A talk with John Hughes from Friends of the Soldiers’ Home

The gate outside of the Armed Forces Retirement Home

By John Argueta

The “Old Soldiers’ Home,” once a place Abraham Lincoln called his vacation home during his presidency, is much more than his famous cottage and the Armed Forces Retirement Home on Rock Creek Church Road in Petworth. It’s a home to diverse wildlife, a home to students at Creative Minds International (CMI) charter school, a home for veterans, a museum, and reflects American history.

I interviewed John Hughes, a founding member of the Friends of the Soldiers’ Home (FOSH), who shared with me about how our Petworth community can be a part of the Home’s Community.

 “The goal of FOSH is to break down the barrier between veterans and residents of the home with the Petworth community,” Hughes told me. “Having families of the community let their kids run and play without the fear of cars was another one of our goals,” Hughes said. “The overall goal of FOSH is when residents of the Home come and engage with the community”.

Three to four hundred residents and veterans live on the grounds of the Old Soldiers Home, creating their own community.

“It’s the second-longest-running veterans’ home in the US,” Hughes said. To help foster the relationship between the residents and veterans, “FOSH has sponsors and asks for donations to help support our events. Having people getting to know, understand and recognize the service these veterans gave is another one of the goals of the Home.”

John Hughes, busy running a recent community event at the Old Soldier’s Home

FOSH looks to achieve their engagement goal by bringing groups of volunteers together with residents four times each month, interacting through activities like gardening, bowling and festivals.

“All are an effort to never have the community and the home be isolated again,” said Hughes.

Visiting the Home feels like you’re in a different place and time — I could sense the possibility of isolation. Taking advantage of volunteering with FOSH is a great way to interact and engage.

The Home has allowed CMI to open their school on the grounds, as it offers the residents of the Home a chance to interact more with the outside world.

“The home goes back to the 1850s and was established as an asylum for veterans who were hurt,” Hughes said. “General Scott helped get [the Home] going and a statue was made in his honor.”

Even though DC is a bustling metropolitan area now, and Petworth is built up as a residential area, the Home used to be rural, and was where Lincoln would escape the bustling city to unwind. The Home definitely feels rural once you walk onto the property’s hills, like history preserved. “It feels like you go back in time,” Hughes commented.

Another way of bringing the community closer to the Home has been a program that allows some of the local residents to enter the grounds when they want to enjoy walking or biking without the dangers of passing cars.

“The pilot project for background-checked community folk coming into the home for walks or jogs has been a success,” Hughes said. “Slowly, more passes will be given to other DC residents as the experiment progresses.”

The program is designed to see how well both the outside Petworth community and the Old Soldiers’ Home community fare with one another. Selected Petworth residents went through a background check before they were granted access to walk around the Home’s grounds.

“The people participating in the experiment love it,” he said. “Hopefully over time we’ll be giving more people access to experience it.”

“We invite the community to come and engage at the festivals and be neighborly with the veterans with the home,” Hughes said.

One such event, the July 4th celebration, has a pretty cool fact about it: the marching band who plays at the Home comes up from the National Mall after their performance. (Hey, who needs to go down to the crowded mall when you can come here and experience it?)

“Just come and engage, volunteer and support the activities the Home offers,” Hughes said. “An involved community really helps.”

Looking down a path toward Scott Hall and some of the resident buildings of the Retirement Home.

My brother and I enjoy walking the grounds of the Home, and one odd thing that we have found from time to time are dead deer. I asked Hughes about the deer, and he said with a smile, “With a Home this old, there’s definitely a lot of mysteries, and I believe you’ve encountered one.” While my imagination screams mythical creatures like a Demogorgon, it could’ve been a coyote... but let’s leave that mystery for some other time.

The Old Soldiers’ Home is something very special I hope everyone gets a chance to go and see.

If you want to volunteer with the Friends of the Soldiers’ Home, shoot them an email to sign up for opportunities. There are so many ways to be involved. Be sure to follow the group on Facebook and on their website.

Ed Note: Petworth News is pleased to publish an article by John Argueta, a recent Roosevelt High School graduate and a current student at the University of the District of Columbia.