Volunteers open center to keep children off street

October 15, 1990|By Martin C. Evans

Until the neighborhood rec center closed two years ago, Anna Warren remembers, drugs and drug violence were never a big part of life in the Claremont Homes public housing development in East Baltimore.

What the 31-year Claremont Homes resident remembers instead is taking her children to the city-run rec center -- housed in a brick building just off Sinclair Lane -- to jump rope, play hopscotch or draw in coloring books.

But, Mrs. Warren recalls, when budget cuts forced the Department of Recreation and Parks to close the center, the vulnerability of neighborhood kids forced to play on the street began to show: Children found needles on the playground, and one 7-year-old was even said to be helping his older brother sell crack.

So, vowing to do what they could to give children an alternative to the streets, a group of parents got together and reopened the recreation center on their own last spring.

"Right now, the only people they have to look up to is the drug dealers," said Mrs. Warren, who became the driving force behind the center's reopening. "We have to show them there is something else beside drug dealers."

When the city stopped running the center, parents began talking about how much the loss of the program would hurt even before a recreation department truck came to haul away the center's pool table.

But talk was all that did happen.

Then, earlier this year, a child playing with a gun he found accidentally shot a 12-year-old girl. At the same time, drug activity was so regular that in April police were making a drug raid in the housing complex even as Claremont Homes residents were holding an anti-drug march nearby.

"It made us realize that guns and drugs are easily accessible, that we had to do something," said Mrs. Warren, who is president of the Claremont Homes Tenants Council. "We wanted to take our streets back."

It was then that parents stopped talking and did something. They persuaded officials at the Housing Authority of Baltimore, which owns the recreation center, to let them use the building.

They also got a boost from the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development, which sent a crew to install new tiles and give a fresh coat of paint to the recreation center before it opened last spring.

On a typical day at the center, a half-dozen adult volunteers work with children between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., helping with a city-run home work program and later supervising about 25 to 30 youngsters who draw, paint, jump rope, bounce balls or read picture books.

For Juanita Ridley, 26, the volunteer recreation center has been a godsend.

Ms. Ridley, who lives across a courtyard from the recreation center, said that because she did not allow her three children to play outside by themselves, they often had to stay indoors before the recreation center reopened. That left them "wild," as Ms. Ridley said recently with a weary shake of the head.

Now that the volunteer center is open, her children can play with other children while she finishes afternoon chores or cooks dinner.

During a recent week, her 7-year-old son, Ricardo, did his homework at the center.

"When he's over there, he tries harder," said Ms. Ridley, who said her children played at the volunteer program almost every weekday last summer.

"So he knows his lessons when he gets home."

The anti-drug sentiment that led to the volunteer effort is apparent throughout the recreation center.

The walls are adorned with posters urging children to mind their manners and stay away from drugs.

"St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, we are driving drugs out of Claremont," reads one hand-lettered poster.

But resources are scarce in this neighborhood -- where most families depend on small paychecks or welfare to get by -- and for the most part it has been a struggle to keep the volunteer program going.

Although the recreation department returned a pool table and a pingpong table, the children still cannot use them because there are no pool sticks or paddles.

The center's toy closet stores a meager supply of games: three basketballs donated by a church, a few board games and jigsaw puzzles, a box of hand-me-down toy trucks borrowed from some of the parents and a single racquetball racket.

"Someone gave me that one," Mrs. Warren said of the racket. "But we need another one."

And there are not always enough volunteers to keep the program running. The center was closed for a few days in mid-September when Mrs. Warren was out of town and there was no one else to set out the games and greet the children.

But the parents who do help are convinced their efforts are making a difference.

Yvonne Carter, a public school cafeteria worker who lives at Claremont Homes, said her love of children persuaded her to volunteer at the recreation center. She said she worked with the program almost every day during the summer and had spent two or three days a week with the children since the school year began.

"It keeps the children off the street and out of trouble," Ms. Carter said. "I can see the difference."

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