Tiffany Cammon, a 14-year-old who lives in South Baltimore's Westport Homes public housing complex, said she and the other children of her neighborhood now have a place to come in from the cold. She wasn't talking about shelter from the chilling temperatures -- but a refuge from the drugs and violence that ruin so many of her peers' lives.
Yesterday, city officials announced the opening of a fine arts and recreation center at Westport Homes.
They promised that the center would not only provide fun and games for children of the beleaguered community, but the youngsters also would have access to drama, music and dance lessons from trained artists.
The main theme of every activity would be showing the children how to live drug-free lives.
"Out on the streets it's cold because people will use you and tear you down," said Tiffany, who aspires to be a police officer.
"In here, it's warm. People will protect you and try to show you how to live a good life," she added.
Similar centers will be opened within the next two months at three of the city's most crime-plagued public housing complexes -- Lafayette Courts, Murphy Homes and Lexington Terrace.
Previously, the Department of Parks and Recreation operated modest recreation centers in these complexes. But severe budget shortfalls forced Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to cut funds from the programs, so he asked the Baltimore City Housing Authority to seek federal assistance.
Housing officials said they received a $256,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is renewable over three years, and they hope the centers would continue to win federal support beyond that if they succeed at improving the quality of life of children such as Tiffany.
Mary Tunstall, the supervisor of the Westport center, said what makes her program unique is its focus on the arts.
Ms. Tunstall said the children will have opportunities to work with professionally trained dancers, musicians, artists and actors. The artists will hold a workshop at each center once a week and organize theatrical productions.
"My daughter wants to be a dancer and I never could afford to send her to dance classes," said Denise Ross, a 25-year-old mother of three who grew up in Westport Homes.
"And I like the center because the parents are involved," she added. "If there's something I don't like then I can say so and we help decide what programs to set up for the kids."
Ms. Tunstall said that she has gone door-to-door in the neighborhood to recruit children and their parents for participation in the center's activities.
"It's important for the parents to support their kids, and so far the parents have been excited about it," she said. "We even got a lot of members of our Narcotics Anonymous group to volunteer. Even if the parents are into negative activities, they all want their kids to live good lives."
George Cornick, an assistant football coach at Northern High School, will be in charge of the center at Lexington Terrace. A chess enthusiast, Mr. Cornick said he hopes to get his charges interested in such nontraditional activities.
But it's not going to be easy.
"I know guys in this neighborhood like games that are more rough," said 12-year-old Bobby Guest. "It's nice to have all this dance and music for the girls, but boys just want to play basketball."