The rowhouse looked so dark and shabby and cold I couldn't imagine that anyone -- not a 14-year-old boy and certainly not a 7-month-old baby -- actually lived inside. But Alice Arena knew better. That's why she knocked on the door.
Rush hour was over, thousands of commuters had left Baltimore for the night, and now Alice Arena, a 24-year-old woman who grew up in the happy suburb of Columbia, found herself trying to stir up the inhabitants of this dark rowhouse near Pennsylvania Avenue, deep inside one of the poorest sections of the city.
No one answered her knock.
Alice actually was looking for the 14-year-old boy. I'll call him Reggie for the purpose of this story. Reggie lives in the dark house with his mother and her 7-month-old baby. He's what the social workers call an "at-risk youth." That means there's a serious chance he could drop out of school, or get in trouble with the law, or run away from home and fall into the traps that destroy a lot of young men in the city. In fact, Reggie has been in trouble already; he recently served time in a juvenile detention center. That's why Alice was out in the night checking on him, knocking on his door, making sure he hadn't stumbled again.
It's her job.
She's a caseworker with the Choice program in South Baltimore. She's supposed to "track" the boy each day, to make sure he's home by a certain time, up the next morning and off to school. She and two other Choice workers, Damon Moreland and Richard Jones, track 29 kids altogether -- and that's just a fraction of Choice's caseload citywide -- in what must be one of the most intensive programs of its kind in the country.
Still no one answered Alice's knock.
"I'll come back later," she said.
"You will?" I asked, surprised that anyone could be so deeply committed to these vulnerable kids. But Choice is like that. It's sort of a Big Brother/Big Sister program on steroids.
"I'll check on all 29 kids before the night's over," Alice said.
It was 6:30. Night had fallen hard and cold on this street of shabby rowhouses, and no one had answered Alice's knock. We got back into her car.
Suddenly we heard young men screaming, "Hey! Hey! Hey!" They were beckoning us back to the dark house.
A woman yelled, "Hello, Alice."
It was Reggie's mother. She'd come out of the dark house, a sweater over her shoulders and her arms crossed tightly against the cold air.
"Has Reggie been home?" Alice asked.
"You just missed him," his mother said.
It seems that Reggie runs in and out of the house all the time. Living conditions have a lot to do with this. The house hasn't had electricity for several months. Reggie's mother keeps a kerosene heater in her bedroom. She said she keeps her 7-month-old daughter in the bedroom, too. Sometimes, she said, when the fumes bother the baby, she goes to a friend's house to get warm.
Out on the sidewalk, Alice Arena had a plan: Get Reggie back in school the next day. Get him a bus pass. Get him lunch tickets. And let's get his mother to the Department of Social Services. Work out a plan for getting the electricity turned on. And get her an application for subsidized housing so maybe she, Reggie and the baby can move into better quarters.
Maybe this is what it takes: A few good, committed people leading a few troubled kids and their troubled families out of the darkness. Showing them options. Helping them make choices. Getting them to feel better about themselves. Giving them hope.
Maybe this is what it takes: An intense, day-to-day, even hour-to-hour monitoring of kids in danger of falling into the traps -- into truancy and into illiteracy, into drugs, or into pregnancy, or even into jail.
This is hard work, but the young men and women who come to Choice dive in eagerly. The night I was with her, Alice Arena seemed to operate on the quiet faith that she was making a difference somewhere in someone's life.
She had to feel that way when Reggie's mother came out of the old rowhouse and called her by her first name and thanked her for all the help. She certainly must have felt that way when she got up the next day, found Reggie at home and got him to school. And she must have felt that way when she put Reggie's mother on track to get her 7-month-old baby out of that dark, cold house.