In the tiny basement of a West Baltimore rowhouse, 20 youngsters spent much of yesterday reading to one another.
It was Presidents Day, a school holiday, and the children were reading in Ann Nichols' basement in the 2000 block of N. Pulaski St.
In an area of the city known for drug deals and idleness, as many as 40 schoolchildren, ages 5 to 15, gather at least once a week for reading lessons in the cramped basement.
The sessions are unconditional and not forced on anyone.
Most of the youngsters attend simply because they enjoy reading, said Ms. Nichols, a retired city teacher who tutors the readers.
"There's not even all the kids here that usually come here," said Ms. Nichols, who is also president of the Pulaski Street Neighborhood Organization.
"These are just kids who want something else to do. They don't want to be out running the streets," she added as she maneuvered through the basement.
The children usually bring their own books, magazines or pamphlets and read to one another for about two hours each session, Ms. Nichols said.
Any neighborhood youngster -- and even some from outside the area -- may attend.
"Sometimes it gets too large and it's too hard to handle," said Ms. Nichols, who began the program two years ago and is not paid for her efforts. "I didn't take it to grow this big. I took it to get so many kids off the streets."
In recent years, the neighborhood has attracted a lot of attention for being a hot spot for drug activity. The drug dealing frequently is accompanied by shootings, which often occur as children play on the streets.
Some of the kids in the reading program come from homes where the parents didn't finish high school and don't assign a priority to reading or education. Others come from homes where reading is their only pastime.
Chaz Rollins, 10, a fifth-grader at Hilton Elementary School, said he enjoys reading and reads at least two books a week. Were he not reading at Ms. Nichols' home, he said, there's a good chance he would be doing so at home.
"Either that or eating junk food, but probably reading," Chaz said. "But my reading has improved. I'm at a sixth-grade level now."
Kirk Johnson, 11, a sixth-grader at William H. Lemmel Middle School, said he likes reading but would rather play with his Nintendo.
"But I know it's important so that I can get a good job later on," Kirk said.
Ms. Nichols, known as "Miss Anne" to local children, said the program could easily be expanded to include more children if there were a larger facility. She said she hopes to use a nearby vacant store for the reading sessions.
The program was aided earlier this year when the community association received a $10,000 grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation, which assists community organizations that have little or no resources. Ms. Nichols said part of the grant was used to purchase reading materials.
Parents of the readers praised the program for offering an option to playing in the streets.
"Any time you have a reading program, it's good," said Rebecca Savage, whose son attends the sessions. "There are not too many options in this neighborhood."