Teen Center Turns Sordid Street Scenes Into Lessons

April 12, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

Men scuffle in the darkness outside the old grocery store, jostling each other on the sidewalk under the broken Coca-Cola sign.

Their voices, loud and angry, filter through the barred windows of the little store that's now a teen center. Two dozen children sit munching hot dogs and watching a movie, ignoring the commotion and the sound of breaking glass until a police car pulls up with blaring sirens.

The children rush to look outside. A few 10-year-olds wander up the block to watch the arrest, returning only reluctantly when outreach worker Joseph "Zastrow" Simms corrals them and admonishes them backinto their seats.

It's not an uncommon interruption. The action outside the windows of the teen center at West Washington and Clay streets in Annapolis often rivals the videos shown every Wednesday night.

But the leaders of Healthy Teens, a pilot program to teach children from low-income neighborhoods healthier habits, have learned to use the street activity as a lesson. They discuss the risk of jail along with the dangers of becoming addicted to drugs. They point to the young girls pushing strollers past the windows when they talk about safe sex.

"The kids know what's going on," said Robin Beavers Robinson, 34, who lives in the Clay Street area and has worked at the teencenter for two years. "We try to use it to talk about the dangers."

Healthy Teens began three years ago to combat high teen pregnancy and infant mortality rates in Annapolis, Baltimore and Prince George's County. State health officials found those areas have worse infant-death rates than the rest of Maryland, which has the U.S.'s ninth-highest rate.

In studying the sharp disparity that exists between working-class communities and more affluent sections of the state, Dr. Russell Moy, director of maternal health and family planning for the Maryland Health Department, learned many residents lacked access to basic health services. He created Healthy Teens to help fill the gap.

"This was an attempt to have a more comprehensive, more holistic approach," he said.

The outreach component of Healthy Teens revolvesaround the teen centers. Community workers were hired in the those ZIP code areas that had the state's highest pregnancy and infant-deathrates to talk teen-agers into taking better care of themselves.

Health officials chose natives of the Clay Street area to work there. Simms and his brother, the Rev. Charles Simms, minister of Macedonia United Methodist Church, have become street ministers, talking to theyoung men about sexually transmitted diseases and inviting them to the center to pick up condoms. Robinson teaches the teen-age women proper nutrition and hygiene and to use birth control if they're sexually active.

Their approach is subtle. They invite neighborhood children to stop by the teen center for help on their homework. At the same time, they will answer questions about everything from acne to sexually transmitted diseases.

Every Wednesday night, they advertise apopular video (rented for free from Erol's Inc. on West Street) and a snack (often donated by restaurants in Annapolis). They preface thesession with a message, kept brief and interesting since many of thechildren tune out as soon as they hear another anti-drug spiel. Sometimes they show videos on AIDS with a catchy rap song. At other times, they chat about peer pressure.

"How does a teen-ager who has a fear of health care in general come in to talk to a nurse about, say, menstruation?" asks Nadine Smith, the 40-year-old coordinator of Healthy Teens. "You have to make health care very available and communityoriented."

The outreach program is loosely structured. Charles Simms often arrives early in the mornings to pass out luncheon bags full of condoms to young men and women in the neighborhood. Zastrow Simms drops by in the afternoon to help the junior high school children with their homework. Robin Beavers Robinson visits the schools to talkabout teen stress and raps with groups of girls.

"A lot of the kids come here just to talk," said Denise Gibbs, who brings her three youngest sons to the movie nights. "They enjoy it, and it keeps them off the street."

The three-year effort is beginning to pay off, butit's a struggle, Robinson said. Many of the neighborhood children come from single-parent homes, and their mothers work at nights, she said. Some have parents who are hooked on drugs. Others are sent to school with a candy bar for breakfast.

"Some of them come in here andthey cry," she said.

Often, she just listens. The troubles come spilling out -- of being pressured to have sex, of a mother's boyfriend staring at them, or a father who is using drugs, or of more simple problems, acne or their weight.

"Kids will tell you that they can't build relationships. But once you start the conversations, boy, thekids are just begging for somebody to listen to them."

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