LIVING IN a safe and secure place like Roland Park, I can hardly imagine a life experienced by people living not even three miles away. Drugs, poverty, depression, apathy. It seems as though they can't escape the environment and inevitably repeat the patterns, generation after generation.
After joining the WBAL staff, I became involved with their ongoing WBAL Radio Kids Campaign. I was curious about who we benefited, so I visited one of the many organizations to which funds were donated.
I was saddened by what I saw. East Baltimore's Johnston Square area near the City Jail is, unfortunately, indicative of the condition of many other inner city neighborhoods. Even in broad daylight, I felt ill at ease. Tension in the air was thick, tangible, as if chaos would occur at any second. There seemed to be broken glass everywhere, a sort of asphalt minefield. I wondered how anyone, particularly a child, could thrive in this environment, much less experience happiness. Was there any hope in a situation like this?
Evidently, yes. Standing symbolically, majestically, right in the middle of this weakened neighborhood is the St. Frances Academy. It began as an orphanage after being built in 1870. It went from being a grade school and a boarding school in 1940 to a co-ed high school in 1974. The academy also served as living quarters for the Oblate Sisters of Providence until they moved into renovated row houses on Brentwood Avenue in 1978. It was that year they began their intensive neighborhood outreach program as well.
Sister Brenda Motte, coordinator of the St. Frances Outreach program, arranged for me to meet some of the neighborhood children. They were spirited, chatty, friendly. Never mind the world outside the front door; they forgot about it as soon as they walked into the sisters' home.
Marty, the designated "spokesperson" (a seasoned veteran of interviews), was determined to be a chef after graduating. He was already checking into a chef school. "Beanie," a very pretty girl, wanted to be a cosmetologist. They talked about 13- and 14-year-olds who were having babies and about shootings in their neighborhood. I was a little disturbed by the graphic descriptions of the shooting victims.
Sister Brenda, easygoing, tough and hugely committed, has dedicated herself to improving the lives of these children. The Radio Kids Campaign has helped. She told me: "Giving them experiences like camping, fishing, visits to the Science Center, the aquarium, tours, swimming out of town, after-school tutoring all help to teach a child about the world beyond Johnston Square. The money also has helped us buy Christmas gifts. We transform this front entrance into a Christmas wonderland with gifts for every kid in the neighborhood."
She told me, "I know it's never going to be 100 percent. We see enough good that is encouraging, and you don't want to move out on them. You want to stay here and just try to be a ray of hope, and try to show them that life isn't so bad in Johnston Square. If we can get them interested in education and other things in life, they're not going to end up in the City Jail. They've seen the other side, the other side of Fallsway; I always say the other side of Fallsway, because that's where life is, in a sense."
She added, "Talk about living paycheck to paycheck we're living from day to day, because we really don't have operating money for our school. It's just by a miracle that we're able to stay open. We're still here, hoping that God is smiling on us and will give us another year to help."
Maureen Ryan is programming assistant for WBAL-AM Radio.