In a perfect world, the Young Family Support Center in Essex would have had a grand opening, but the needs of the real world leave no time for celebrating.
The storefront in a brick, strip shopping center in the 200 block of Back River Neck Road doesn't even have a sign. But that's OK. People have been coming to the center since before the spackle dried.
The center is the first of its kind in Baltimore County. It is supported by a $170,000 grant from Friends of the Family Inc., which funds five similar centers in Baltimore and several others around the state.
The Essex center is operated by the county Department of Social Services (DSS) and represents the first time Friends of the Family has accepted an application from a government social services agency.
"I think the feeling was that DSS was one of those agencies that got involved with you when you were in trouble, that they would take your kid from you, report you to somebody, that kind of thing," said Frances Kelly, the department's director of adolescent services.
"We work very hard to keep this a friendly place. For instance, we don't call the people who come in here 'clients.' They are 'participants.' "
The center's services are aimed at parents under age 25 who have children 3 years old or younger.
Walk in the door of what was once a Chinese carryout restaurant and you won't face a bunch of bureaucrats with forms to fill out. Instead, there's a room filled with toys where you can sit and play with your children. An early childhood expert is on hand to help out.
"There used to be grandmothers and aunts around where you could stop by for advice, to have someone else watch the child for a while," said Ms. Kelly. "Those people aren't around as much anymore."
Ms. Kelly said the center was targeted for Essex because DSS statistics show the area has some of the county's highest concentrations of people on public assistance, of cases of child abuse and neglect.
Local high schools report high rates of pregnancy among students.
"We chose this location because it's in walking distance of several of the apartment complexes where a lot of these problems occur," she said. "The grant also allowed us to get a van that we use to pick people up and bring them here.
"That's a big help because we are dealing with people who would find it difficult to get themselves out of bed on a Monday morning, get the kids dressed, get out of the house and then take two or three buses to get here." The grant from Friends of the Family began July 1. By that time, the county Department of Education already was advertising GED classes that started in September at the center.
Those classes started before the renovations, using labor donated by the county, were completed.
"We have about 36 people come for the GED, Mondays and Wednesdays, 9:30 to 11:30 [a.m.] and then they can stay for lunch until 12:30," Ms. Kelly said. "They are very dedicated. Few of them ever miss."
Though the center only got its director, Harriet Bachman, in mid-November, it has also been offering a parent-support group that attracts about 10 participants on Monday afternoons. A public health nurse holds weekly classes at the center.
"It's all very informal," Ms. Kelly said. "We don't want to make this feel like school."
While the parents are attending these classes, their children under age 3 are cared for in the play area.
"This is not a drop-off day-care center," Ms. Kelly said. "We've had to make that clear. We only look after the children while their parent is here on the site."
In virtually every one of the services offered, the center's staff has found more basic services are required than were originally anticipated.
For instance, about one-fourth of the children getting day care during GED classes have been referred for further treatment because of problems with language development. The GED classes have become remedial classes, in some cases teaching basic literacy.
"The point of this place is to give the community what it needs and wants," Ms. Kelly said.
"We have a community board and we listen to them to find out what should go on here.
"They are active, too. We've always had about 30 people show up for every meeting. I was always told that you invite 30 people, 10 of them come and five end up doing the work, but that hasn't been the case with this."
Students from Chesapeake High School showed up a few weeks ago and gave the center a $400 check, proceeds from a school play. Other schools, as well as churches and charitable agencies, have expressed interest in using the center for activities.
"We want a lot of things going on here," Ms. Kelly said.
"I hope to get weekly teen nights because part of our mission is preventing pregnancies. Mainly we want the community to find appropriate ways to use this place and its staff."