Turning it around at Tidewater Village Community center is symbol of change

June 24, 1993|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Staff Writer

Toshio "Doobie" Williams is a study in pint-sized cool.

His bright red, baggy athletic shorts fall lower than low, almost to his shins. He wears blacktop Reeboks without socks. He likes to perform in front of the karaoke machine, and he plays point guard with reckless abandon.

Henry Mack Jr. is a powerfully built man of 51 years, a clerk with a truck rental company. He is on a quest to give back to the youth of his community what police and adult volunteers gave to him 40 years ago.

Their paths cross in a large, impersonal rental development called Tidewater Village in the Eastern Baltimore County community of Chase. There, they say, their lives have

been changed by a community outreach center that opened 18 months ago in one of the development's small townhouse apartments.

They stand outside the building, slowly bouncing a basketball back and forth. With each bounce, Mr. Mack offers the 13-year-old some wisdom.

"You got to make the most of every opportunity that comes your way because you don't get many in life," he says. "So you can't worry about things like your size. Besides, it's how big your heart is that counts, not how tall you stand."

Inside, on a warm afternoon, the center is bulging with youngsters. Upstairs, a group has taken over the office to play video games. Across the hall, Martha Leitch, a Police Athletic League youth counselor, works with preteens on arts and crafts.

Downstairs, volunteer Barbara Brown goes over a math lesson with four children in the after-school homework club. In the kitchen, more children start to gather for Mr. Mack's song and dance class.

Doobie used to hang on the streets with other teens headed toward an uncertain future.

"There wasn't nothin' here for kids to do until the center opened," Doobie said. "The center keeps the kids off the street and off of drugs."

It didn't happen overnight. Built 21 years ago on Eastern Avenue Extended, Tidewater Village is a colorless, visually depressing development of long buildings that hold 981 small, two-story townhouse apartments.

Formerly called Dundee Village, the complex had a reputation for crime, drugs and domestic disputes. Its name had such negative connotations in the community that the management company changed it to Tidewater Village four years ago.

"It seemed that in every crime committed in Chase, people would point to Tidewater Village as the reason, valid or not," said Mary Emerick of the 5th District Substance Abuse Advisory Council.

Police offer to help

Troubled developments such as Tidewater frequently prompt police to send in resident Citizen-Oriented Police Enforcement units (COPE) to work with adults and children to address the community's problems. Usually, the reason is drugs. Police picked Tidewater because it had the highest number of domestic violence calls in the county.

"No one seems to know why domestic violence was so prevalent here," said COPE Officer Bill Ayres. "Drugs could have played a part, as there was definitely a drug problem as well."

Older youths had little to do, except hang out on the streets. The nearest playground was a half-mile away.

The Area II COPE Unit leased a house at 160 Aleberge Court, where Officers Ayres and Mark Merson set up shop. The Community Outreach Center was established by the substance abuse council. The grand opening on Nov. 12, 1991, drew a crowd of government officials.

But reality soon set in. Without community support and volunteers to make it work the outreach center was virtually empty on the days it was open. So the officers and counselors went to work, canvassing the community to drum up support among the residents.

Counselor Tony Siwak remembers the first day he walked into the the complex. He was uneasy. Mr. Siwak is white, and just about every face he saw was black. He found no outright hostility, but no warm welcome, either.

"I didn't know anyone, no one knew me, and I felt very uncomfortable," he said. But he and the COPE officers persisted.

A challenge to residents

Henry Mack recalls the day Officer Ayers came calling.

"I saw him walking down the court knocking on doors, but I was working on my car and didn't pay him much mind," Mr. Mack said. "The next thing is I hear someone say, 'You got your center -- now get off your butt and volunteer!' "

Mr. Mack looked up to see Officer Ayers looking at him.

"Yes, I'm talking to you," the officer said. "You going to be there the next day the center opens?"

That got Mr. Mack thinking about his days in the Police Boys Club in the tough, poor West Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up.

"I joined the club when I was 10 years old," Mr. Mack said. "Through the club I learned to box, play basketball and football, shoot and to feel a part of something. But most of all, through the club I gained self-esteem, confidence in myself, and it kept me off the streets and out of trouble. It gave me hope."

Several days later, Mr. Mack showed up at the center.

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