Youths reap self-respect from garden

June 30, 1994|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

On a lot filled with weeds in a neighborhood overrun with drug paraphernalia and despair, youths work tirelessly at a vegetable garden. For them, the garden is a place where solace is found.

With makeshift tools, the youngsters gather daily at the lot in the 3300 block of Woodland Ave. in Northwest Baltimore to work the land and clean the community. They receive small salaries, but to some the money is not important.

"I'd just be watching TV. This is a chance to grow some big stuff," said Yaaqobah Eaton, 12, who lives in a two-story rowhouse across from the lot. "There's a cycle of people doing the wrong thing around here, but this is the right thing."

The renovation of the lot -- where seven rowhouses once stood -- is an effort by the Woodland Nguzo Saba Neighborhood Association to clean the community and to provide supervised activities for area children.

Jean M. Yahudah, president of the organization, said drug dealers often entice youngsters into drug trafficking and, because there are few options to earn money, the youths succumb to the temptation.

"All they [the youths] want to do is sell drugs long enough to make enough money to buy tennis shoes and go to the movies," Ms. Yahudah said. "We're just trying to provide something else for them to do."

This month, the community organization received a $9,500 grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation. The money is being used to provide small stipends to the youths for garden work and to pay for trips and other activities.

About 50 youths are in the program, and each receives $1 an hour, or $25 every two weeks.

"But you need something to get them involved in activities," said Elliott Wiley, the foundation's director for the neighborhood grants program. "This is a tough neighborhood. We always talk about kids hanging out on corners, but you've got to provide incentives and employ youths. An idle mind is the devil's workshop."

Located in the Park Heights community, the Woodland Avenue strip between Park Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road consists of predominantly low-income residents.

In some areas of the neighborhood, drugs are openly sold, especially on the corner of Park Heights and Woodland avenues and along Woodland near the youths' fenced-in garden. Residents said shootings are common -- as evidenced by bullet marks on Ms. Yahudah's van.

Maj. Barry Powell, commander of the Northwestern District, said the community is "rough," but the residents' efforts to beautify it work hand-in-hand with the Police Department's drug enforcement effort.

For the past three days, the youths have worked long hours in the garden and cleaning streets and alleys. The city has given the residents indefinite use of the land and has donated 28 truckloads of compost and about 50 railroad tires to outline the garden.

Drug paraphernalia, including small glass vials and a variety of colored vial tops were among the items found on the first day of the cleanup. While the youths worked, drug dealers watched from less than two blocks away. Some dealers offered to help but most kept their distance.

"They respect us, and if they want to help we'll let them," Ms. Yahudah said. "We don't agree with what they're doing, but we let them help out."

When the program began, many youths and adults had limited gardening experience. Now, neat rows indicate where peppers, cabbage and beets will grow.

Michelle Campbell, who has nine children and has lived on Woodland Avenue for 16 years, said the garden and cleaning programs help to build self-esteem among the neighborhood's youngsters.

"As a whole there was just too much idle time, and some were just out in the streets," she said.

April Morten, 11, who lives near the garden, said she has seen many shootings and fights in the neighborhood. She said police have ridded the community of many drug dealers, but "others are here now."

"Working here lets me discover something new," April said as she shoveled compost. "I never did this before, but it's OK. It's different."

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