Cathy O'Malley looks at her community and sees blue-collar, hard-working people.
"It's what I call the backbone of America," she says. "We carry the nation on our backs."
And O'Malley, a special-education teacher at Morrell Park Elementary School in southwest Baltimore, looks around her school and sees dedicated, hard-working students and teachers.
"We're not entitled to anything free here," she says. "We're not at the poverty level, but we're not Mount Washington or Roland Park either. What we have in this school, we've earned."
In that working-class spirit, O'Malley spearheaded a drive to bring together the community and school for a project that benefits both: A playground for students and neighbors of Morrell Park Elementary School.
The playground was a dream until O'Malley received a $10,000 NIP grant from the city. NIP is the acronym for the Neighborhood Incentive Program. Since 1983 the city Department of Housing and Community Development has awarded about 250 NIP grants worth about $3 million, says Naomi Benyowitz, who heads the program.
City groups of all sorts receive the grants, which help pay for construction projects such as fences, signs, building renovations and playgrounds. In return for the money, the groups must provide volunteer labor, raise money on their own, recruit businesses to donate materials, or otherwise persuade the city that the groups themselves are carrying their load.
Morrell Park Elementary School, in the 2600 block of Tolley St., held bazaars and raised about $8,000. The president of the Parent-Teacher Association, Debbie Bees, spent three days with her telephone, Yellow Pages and list of materials for the playground. Fifteen businesses or agencies donated just about everything.
"That's really typical of this community," O'Malley says. "They give until it hurts, and then they keep on giving some more."
Perry Hairsine is an owner of the Purple Goose, a bar on Washington Boulevard. He also owns a home-improvement business. He donated the services of two carpenters for two days, as well as the use of all the tools in his tool truck.
He did it, he says, because he makes a living from the community, and he wanted to put something back.
ABC, Siems and Taylor rental companies donated an auger and wheelbarrows. American and Edrich Lumber, Super Concrete, Joseph J. Hock Trucking, Lansdowne Paint and Hardware, and J.L. Brandt and Son donated and delivered lumber, wood chips and concrete. Hechinger's, Dunkin' Donuts, Standard Supply and the Salvation Army chipped in.
Parents, teachers, spouses of teachers and former students helped build the snazzy playground over three weeks last month and this month -- in the rain, sleet, snow, lightning and thunder. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke came out last week to award a new round of NIP grants as well as to dedicate the playground at Morrell Park to Anne Dillow.
Dillow has been the secretary at Morrell Park Elementary School for 27 years. She is known as "the grandmother of Morrell Park," because she's involved in everything, knows everybody, and everybody knows her.
"The whole purpose of NIP is community involvement, getting everybody working for a common purpose," O'Malley says. "It really worked here. This is a perfect example of it."
Another example is a playground planned in West Baltimore for students of two schools next to each other -- Rosemont Elementary, in the 2700 block of Presstman St. and Dr. Lillie M. Jackson Elementary in the 1500 block of Ashburton St.
Lillie M. Jackson is a school for handicapped students. The idea is for children from both schools to play side by side.
Both schools, Neighborhood Housing Services and the Ash-Co-East/Coppin Heights Neighborhood Association have joined forces to build the playground within the next year. Daniel H. Powell is president of the neighborhood association.
"There's a real bad need for a playground there," he says. "I think all children need some kind of activity, some kind of exercise. All kids need some place to play."