Fitness center in Essex is an exercise in gratitude and compassion BALTIMORE COUNTY

August 10, 1993|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,Staff Writer

OrLando Yarborough made a pact with God in June of 1992.

He promised that if his son, Eugene, survived being poisoned by a neighbor who put methadone in his soda, he would open a youth center.

Eugene, 18, made it, and a week after he came home from the hospital Mr. Yarborough, 47, resigned as an auditor for the U.S. Department of Defense, took his 20-year retirement fund, and started the Body Mechanics Fitness Center in Essex.

He turned Riverwood Plaza, a vacant shopping center at 101 Back River Neck Road, into an outreach center where children and adults learn self-esteem, discipline and good nutrition through martial arts, weight training and aerobic exercises. He also runs a summer day-camp for children ages 6 to 16.

"These are street kids, throwaway children, as the schools call them. They are on welfare, and they need help to stay off the streets," said Mr. Yarborough, known as "Butch" to his students. "If I wasn't helping them, they could be the same kids out snatching purses or stabbing me in the back."

What started as a profit-making venture has turned into a financial loss. Most of the children are on public assistance and can't afford to pay. Mr. Yarborough is four months behind on his bills -- owing $5,732 to his landlord, $306.18 to the phone company and $418.01 for gas and electricity. The utility companies are sending him cutoff notices. Soon he will be forced to close.

To keep the center afloat, he has filed for nonprofit status, which would make the center eligible for grants.

His $40,000 in retirement money paid for rent and construction costs to join his one-room martial arts studio to an aerobic room, a weight room and an office. Although he is occupying nine vacant shops, the landlord, Dr. Emanuel S. Glasser, only asks for monthly rent on two of them -- $3,488.

"He is such a fine person, and he is so eager to do something nice in that place that I just can't shut him out," Dr. Glasser said. "OrLando's center helps to keep down vandalism and graffiti."

Dr. Glasser said he will allow Mr. Yarborough to keep the center open until he gets new tenants.

A mostly blue-collar area, Essex has been hit hard by unemployment as manufacturing companies have cut back in recent years. Of all five districts in the county, Essex has the highest number of families receiving public assistance -- 2,003 -- according to Maureen Robinson, spokeswoman for Baltimore County Social Services.

Twice a week, Mr. Yarborough's 30 campers go on field trips to museums, the Essex Community College swimming pool or Rock Point Beach. Breakfast and lunch are provided by the county school system.

"We are not just passing time teaching the kids exercise techniques," said public relations director and aerobics instructor Linda Starks. "This is a community outreach center and we are reaching out to everyone we can to influence and educate the young people in this area because we really do care about them."

The new teen dance club is evidence of that concern. It was a pool hall. About 20 men who were regulars there used to hang out around the shopping center, selling drugs and seeking young pushers. When the pool hall closed in May, the men left. Then Mr. Yarborough and about 15 teens took over. They scraped gum off the carpet, washed down the yellow-stained walls and turned it into a dance club.

"Butch is helping us to stay off the streets where we may be tempted by drugs," said Sharnita Scott, 12, who lives in Essex. "If I had the money I would pay him."

Though few of the 100 members pay the $175 initial membership fee, the $76 monthly fee, the $12 fee for day camp or even the $5 fee for a self-defense class, Mr. Yarborough doesn't turn anyone away.

"If I turn them away that means there is another drug dealer out there waiting for them to be a pusher or a user," he said. "If you give them something positive to do and then teach them about positive values, they will understand and want to stay away from drugs, alcohol and smoking."

No one works out at the fitness center for free. Washing the windows, taking out the trash or vacuuming the aerobics room equals a one-hour martial arts class. Show another camper a new aerobics move and you've earned an aerobics class.

Thomas Peacher, 15, heard about the fitness center from a friend who lives in the county and took martial arts at Mr. Yarborough's studio. Now Thomas rides the bus from Baltimore to Essex everyday. He stays until dark, cleaning windows or emptying trash cans. He says the self-control and self-esteem he learns at the center makes the 45-minute bus ride worth it.

"I'm not into being bad because you either die or end up going to jail," he said. "It's hard to resist the peer pressure that's out there.

"Coming to Butch's center keeps me from just hanging out on the street," he said. "I am learning to control my temper and to stay away from drugs and alcohol. He always reminds us that if we want to be really tough, do something different and do the right thing."

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