Fresh Start offers troubled youth a new attitude and a future

GROWTH INDUSTRY

July 25, 1993|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

On a day of warm winds and brilliant sun, Charles Spann faces 100 guests gathered on the old Baltimore City pier in East Baltimore to watch 13 young men and women graduate from Fresh Start, a job-training program for troubled youths.

Standing calmly on the makeshift stage, Mr. Spann is both a commanding role model for the beaming graduates and an object of fierce pride for the teachers and colleagues who have steered him to this moment.

Mr. Spann, as well, was once a kid in trouble. But today, he is speaking as a Fresh Start '92 graduate, and president of Tico Enterprises, a fledgling business founded a year ago by Mr. Spann and his classmates with their teachers' guidance.

"I came from a small block in Baltimore," Mr. Spann, 18, tells his audience. "I thought that was the whole world. Slowly, I found out there is a bigger world out there you can all take part in."

Mr. Spann's story stands sturdily on its own, as he wants it to. He bristles with indignation when lumped into the amorphous socio-economic group known as "inner-city youth."

But Mr. Spann's life, so far, can't help but speak for multitudes of other young people stuck, as he once was, in a rut of poverty and little opportunity.

"He is a living example of the fact that it doesn't matter how far down the road a youngster goes, if you work with him and find the right combination of things that means something to him, you're going to be changing his life," says Juvenile Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar.

At Fresh Start and a variety of other programs sponsored by the non-profit Living Classrooms Foundation, based in an Inner Harbor lighthouse, the goal is to change the lives of at-risk and disadvantaged children by teaching them hands-on skills and a sense of self worth. Staff and students work together in a number of settings, including three historic ships, the Living Classrooms Maritime Institute and a llama farm. At the Fresh Start program, teen-agers are trained in marine industry fields such as boat carpentry, motor repair and boat handling.

In an interview, Mr. Spann slumps in the booth of an old boat, recycled as furniture in the conference center at the maritime institute on South Caroline Street, where Fresh Start operates.

Mr. Spann chews gum, sits up and looks a visitor directly in the eye as he replies to a question. Sometimes he gets up and strides around the room, while struggling to articulate painful thoughts.

"I don't have an option anymore, this is my life now," Mr. Spann says. "I realize this is my last opportunity and I'm going to hang on to it now while I have the chance. It's not any more slaps on the wrist or, 'Don't do this again,' you know."

He is tall, hefty and wears a cartoon T-shirt, baggy shorts, snow-white socks and sneakers. By turn talkative and guarded, Mr. Spann would rather discuss today than the past or his family. Reluctantly, he offers a minimal sketch of his old life.

'It was all I saw'

"That was the only thing I saw," Mr. Spann says about his days as a drug dealer. "I mean, guys were there in the neighborhood for the money, jewelry, good cars and nice clothes. They were on the streets all the time. . . . It was all I saw. They were the successful people to me."

It was not unusual for Mr. Spann to earn several thousand dollars a week from his trade. When he was a 15-year-old freshman at Edmondson High School, it all collapsed. Mr. Spann was charged with multiple drug offenses and sent to the Charles Hickey School correctional center.

The school's monotonous routine, and a staff that he says was largely indifferent gave Mr. Spann no cause for redemption. For the two years he was there, the same thought coursed through his head: "I can't wait to be home and sell some more, make some more money . . ."

At Hickey, Mr. Spann watched other residents leave and return, while he stayed put. "It was like I was dying, or I felt like I wanted to die," he says.

But Mr. Spann didn't cave in. It was his resistance to institutional despair that seized the attention of Emmett Edwards, a Department of Juvenile Services employee who helps to place Hickey residents in rehab programs.

"I saw he had a strong spirit and he wasn't broken, he was still clean-cut and holding himself up," Mr. Edwards says.

Mr. Spann's drug violations made him a hard sell, even to the forward-thinking Fresh Start staff. But Mr. Edwards persuaded them that Mr. Spann would make a good fit for their program.

At first, Mr. Spann was not impressed by Fresh Start. He had no interest in learning marketable maritime skills, how to work as part of a team or hashing out concerns with staff and other students.

"I hated it," he says. "I mean, it was just like another institution. I was like, 'I don't want to be here, I don't want to learn this, . . . I don't want some guy telling me what to do.' "

But the staff stuck behind Mr. Spann as he struggled. And something happened.

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