At Camden Yards, an upstart maintenance company proves having a heart is good business


May 23, 1993|By Linda Lowe Morris

A caption in today's Sun Magazine misidentifies the owners of A & G Cleaning. Grace Blackstone is at left, Anita Dunham on the right.

* The Sun regrets the error.

The ballgame's over, but Anita Dunham and Grace Blackstone have their team psyched, pumped up, ready for anything.

With their empty plastic bags trailing behind them, they double-time up the ramp, jog across the mezzanine and burst into the stadium to confront a sight that would stop weaker souls in their tracks.

Forget the gorgeous city skyline beyond, the inspiring view of the green field below. Their eyes are fixed on a landscape of trash -- the trash left behind after 45,000 fans tie on the feedbag in Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

In the now-deserted stadium, every row of seats from the top of the upper deck to the VIP rows down front is ankle-deep in litter: empty beer and soda cups, peanut shells, popcorn, pizza boxes, wrappers holding half-eaten sandwiches, cups that once held french fries, trays with remnants of corn chips and salsa -- everything saturated with the odor of stale beer.

The 45 workers of A & G Cleaning don't even flinch.

Urged on by Anita and Grace -- the owners, the founders, the "A" and the "G" of A & G Cleaning -- they snap on their surgical gloves and lean into their work, the hand-picking of every bit of trash larger than a matchbox.

"Let's go, go, go, go, go," yells Grace, punctuating her words with a blast from the whistle hanging around her neck.

"They call her the Terminator," Anita says with a quiet laugh, then she calls out to the group, "Let's check behind those seats."

Soon the bags, stuffed with trash and double-knotted, are sent rolling down the steps like tumbleweeds. They are the first of 2,000 garbage-can-size bags the workers will fill with trash this night; another 250 bags will be filled with peanut shells.

It's been a year since Anita and Grace -- as they're soon called by everyone who meets them -- won the contract to provide the labor to clean Oriole Park.

As it is for most people who start their own business, their company is their dream -- and a route, they hope to financial independence.

But it is also more. For Anita and Grace, A & G Cleaning is their own social experiment, the way to prove their beliefs:

That a business with a heart can do far better than one without.

And that giving people who are poor a chance to work, and treating them with respect, even when no one else does, is at the bottom line very good business.

Already the bottom line has proven them right.

In a little more than a year these two entrepreneurs have taken an investment of just $200 and turned it into a company with a working budget well into six figures. And they did it all with a work force made up of men and women who are in many cases poor, sometimes homeless, and all hungry enough for work they are willing to pick up trash for minimum wage.

In that time, they've choregraphed the nights' work into a carefully timed routine.

And in that time they've also found themselves feeding their workers, helping them find homes, encouraging them to go back to high school and even on to college.

"You have to care about the people who work for you first," Grace says. "Without your people you're nothing."

The story of A & G is really the story of Anita Dunham and Grac Blackstone, two single, working mothers who beat the odds against them to turn the skills they learned as children and the beliefs they gained as adults into a business.

Anita, who is 29, grew up in Cherry Hill, the youngest of seven children. She remembers helping her father, who had a business cleaning bowling alleys and apartment buildings, from the time she was 10.

She had a son, Angelo, when she was 15, but stayed in school. She took college-level courses while still at Southern High and become president of the student government association.

"I was always ambitious," Anita says. "I was a 15-year-old mother, but I was not going to let that stop me. I never went on Social Services. I always worked."

After high school, she enrolled in the pre-med program at the University of Maryland. But during her second year, the Anne Arundel County Fire Department visited the university to recruit new employees.

"I was on my own and needed money. The Fire Department said you can make $17,000 a year. I jumped on it. I wanted my son to have a good life."

Anita became the first black woman firefighter in Maryland and ++ went on to become a paramedic. She is still with the Arundel Fire Department at Jessup and arranges her work for A & G around her hours at the station.

Grace, 34, was one of nine children. Her mother worked with the Internal Revenue Service and her father was with the Clark Co. in Havre de Grace, but he also had his own business that did home renovations.

"We were your basic black family, just borderline, trying to

survive between poverty and lower-middle class," she says.

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