When building blocks replace cellblocks, it's magic

May 09, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

An article in The Sun yesterday misidentified The Family Place's newly renovated building at 1809 Ashland Ave. It was formerly the Northeastern District police station.

The Sun regrets the error.

Where jail cells once stood, six young East Baltimore mothers busily helped their toddlers paint wooden blocks in bold colors.

This is The Family Place, a nonprofit center for parents and children that is the new occupant of the long-abandoned Eastern District police station building at 1809 Ashland Ave., just north of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in the low-income Middle East neighborhood.

The smell of sawdust and fresh paint lingers at the renovated brick structure, which will be inaugurated with a neighborhood parade tomorrow.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The symbolism is lost on no one at The Family Place: The cold clang of steel cellblock doors closing behind troubled youths has been replaced by the warm sounds of families at play and the opening of young minds. Mothers and staff alike believe investing in families now will prevent youths from ending up in jail cells later.

The Family Place, whose offerings include adult literacy classes, homework help for students and recreation for teens, is a haven for young mothers like 23-year-old Lynn Faulkner.

A high school dropout who had the first of her three children at 15, Ms. Faulkner spends three days a week at the center. She plays with daughters Sha'cole, 3, and 6-week-old Shere', attends group sessions on parenting and studies for her graduate equivalency diploma.

"I want to start a career," said Ms. Faulkner, who depends on a welfare check to support her children, but plans to have no more. "I got my tubes tied after the last [baby]," she said.

After an hour with the children in the cellblock-turned-playroom one morning last week, Ms. Faulkner moved upstairs for a group session with a half-dozen other mothers and Imogene Peterson, the center's family services coordinator.

The talk was that of mothers anywhere -- what to do when a child cries or pouts or throws a tantrum in the supermarket aisle -- except that many of these mothers are barely past adolescence themselves.

"They just want to be crying to get on your nerves," one young mother complained. "When they know they can get to you by crying, they'll try."

Mrs. Peterson reminded the group that young children cry to express their needs.

"When you became pregnant, you were young," she told the mothers. "A teen-ager is real selfish. A baby is selfish, too, and wants his needs met. The two age groups clash. The teen mom says, 'I want to watch this TV show.' But the baby says, 'I want to be fed.' "

Mrs. Peterson says her mission is to break the cycle of parents abusing children, who then grow up to be abusive parents themselves. Hitting only brings hurt and fear, she says, and may lead abuse victims to "find comfort in alcohol and drugs to compensate for the pain."

No one is forced to come to The Family Place. Executive director Jessica Strauss' philosophy is that "people need to make decisions and choices that improve their own lives. It is never going to happen by force."

"With us, you're here because you want to be," she said.

The center, founded in 1989, has 22 staff members (12 full-time). Last year, 998 people made 13,000 visits to its former quarters in a cramped Broadway rowhouse.

Ms. Strauss, 38, a Baltimore native and Wellesley College graduate, hopes to double those numbers in her new digs.

The spacious former police station, built in 1885, had stood empty since 1985 and was heavily damaged by fire in 1989.

It was renovated at a cost of $1.6 million raised from the city, the state, foundations, corporations and individuals.

The new home allows The Family Place to house a satellite Head Start center for children 3 to 5, plus offer new programs in job readiness (data entry and child care training) and health screening. The aim is to have something for all members of a family.

Ms. Strauss contends that the average $550 annual tab for providing services per person is a bargain compared to the cost of doing nothing: child neglect, school failure, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, unemployment and imprisonment.

The expense of inaction, she says, is reflected in the cost of public assistance for babies born to teen-agers, $6,000 a year; foster care for abused and neglected children, $10,000 a year; and hospital bills for low birth-weight babies, $2,500 a day.

In a neighborhood where one in four teen-agers have babies before they are 18, only two of 200 teens in The Family Place's youth program have become parents, Ms. Strauss said.

On average, participants in the Words for Life literacy program gained one grade level for every 50 hours of instruction, the best rate in Baltimore, she said.

The Family Place grew out of the Middle East Partnership, a joint effort by six nonprofit housing groups that has renovated 175 housing units in the past four years. The partners saw that renovating houses was futile without changing the lives of the people in those houses.

"A lot of people see as a mark of success getting out of this neighborhood," Ms. Strauss said. "We want them to see changing this neighborhood as a mark of success. Our purpose and goal is to have people stay here and improve things from the inside out."

As one of 19 family support centers across the state, The Family Place tries to do enough simple things well to make a difference -- such as giving Middle East teen-agers "what every kid simply ought to have: a place to be, people who care and things to do."

"We have all these huge problems and lots of people talking about global solutions, throwing money at things, setting up systems," Ms. Strauss said. "Here's a program focused in one area, one family at a time. If this was effective here and you could have this kind of program available around the city and then in other cities, we feel you could have some impact."

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