Tutoring neighborhood children wins smiles for injured woman

February 27, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

One day, Dawn Braxton's life was full of hopes; the next, she lay racked with pain from a freak accident.

The 32-year-old mother of three had just been accepted to University of Baltimore Law School, a lifelong dream, in 1990 when she slipped on a newly waxed floor at her Baltimore County workplace, reeled backward and crushed several disks in her neck.

After surgery in 1991 and continual physical therapy, she is still in constant pain, and the left side of her body is often numb.

The former Baltimore City police officer, who served on the force in 1980-82 and worked as a paralegal after that, is not used to inactivity.

"I had a black belt in karate, and I danced constantly," said the former track team member at Western High School in Baltimore.

The injury has also left her unable to work, and 1 1/2 years ago, her family moved to Meadowood Townhouses in Edgewood after financial difficulties caused them to lose their house.

But Ms. Braxton has turned her free time into community involvement -- tutoring neighborhood children for free.

Yesterday, she expanded the four-day program, which started in January, to include Saturdays.

She also counts her blessings. Ms. Braxton says her children -- ages 6, 10 and 14 -- are healthy, and her husband, Harry, has a job.

But when Ms. Braxton and her husband came to their Meadowood rental unit, they were unaware of the community's struggle with crime and poverty.

In the 574-unit complex, there are 294 Section 8 homes, in which tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their monthly income for rent and utilities and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) pays the rest; 155 homes under HUD's low-subsidy program; and 125 available at market-rate rents.

Volunteering after fire

Last year, a fire in the neighborhood brought Ms. Braxton in contact with Mary Brannock, president of the Meadowood Residents Association.

Several families had lost everything they owned, Ms. Braxton said. "I had gone over to see if I could help."

Ms. Brannock accepted Ms. Braxton's offer but in a different way.

"When I heard about her education, I asked her about tutoring our children," said Ms. Brannock. "It was something the community needed."

For Ms. Braxton, who has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice studies from the University of Baltimore and an associate's degree in early childhood education from the Community College of Baltimore, it's been a symbiotic relationship.

"I love children," said Ms. Braxton. "And I was getting bored."

Now, Mondays through Thursdays and Saturdays, children with books in tow show up at a Meadowood townhouse for help with school work.

The townhouse in the 500 block of Meadowood Drive was donated by the Jessup-based National Housing Partnership, which manages Meadowood. It also serves as a policing center, a project set up about two years ago to increase police visibility in a neighborhood beset by crime.

The policing center grew out of the Maryland Project, a Harford County- and state-funded program begun in early 1991 to help communities identify social problems and develop strategies to solve them.

On a recent, sunny afternoon, while other children were outside playing after school, Michael, Vernon, Roosevelt, Marcelius and Veronica, ages 6 to 10, were huddled over math problems and spelling words at a long table at the townhouse.

"Miss Dawn," as the children call her, helped each student, going through book bags looking for assignments and passing out peanut butter crackers and apple juice to start the hour.

"An hour's about all my neck can take," said Ms. Braxton, who stiffly stooped to the children's level to check their work.

"The kids love her," said Dfc. Dale Stonesifer, one of the sheriff's deputies who often stops by the center while class is in session. "It's been real positive for them."

Besides Ms. Braxton's volunteer work, the tutoring program, which started in January, has been made possible by a $1,000 grant from the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission and the Harford County Drug/Alcohol Impact Program.

So far, grant money has bought a blackboard, snacks, and paper and pencils for the children, who often don't have their own supplies.

First to read

Some of the children are also the first ones in their family to read.

"When mama gets stuck on a word, you can help her," said 8-year-old Michael.

As the children pack up their books to go home, Ms. Braxton contemplates the future.

She'd like to work again, she said. And she's thinking about applying for a position as a part-time instructional assistant with the Harford County school system.

But she has a few more battles ahead of her. After the accident, she had received worker's compensation, but it was cut off two years ago. She won her case in court, but it is being appealed. There could also be more surgery, she said.

In the meantime, Miss Dawn will continue to mend the best she can and tutor the children.

For the community, that's a plus.

"That lady's been a godsend," Ms. Brannock said.

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