VOA staffers quietly help where needed Charity: Volunteers of America have done vital work for a century, yet the organization is not well known.

August 16, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

You can dump your old car -- or truck or boat -- with Volunteers of America-Chesapeake (VOA) and help fuel a 100-year-old Baltimore crusade.

It funnels the cash from sales of donated junkers -- $141,800 from 1,376 vehicles and 45 boats donated last year -- into work with mentally ill residents, substance abusers, prisoners, the homeless and VOA's highly structured Woodlawn center for pre-school children.

Besides selling unwanted heaps to help serve its diverse clientele, there are other oddities about VOA, such as the 19th-century origin of its perhaps unfamiliar name.

Paid staffers actually do most of its work as "God's volunteers." More than 90 percent of the nonprofit organization's income is from contracted work for various agencies, rather than donations.

While one of the oldest service groups in America and Maryland (100 years old this year) and the nation's 21st largest nonprofit organizations ($351 million budget, $9.4 million of it here), it's largely a secret in Maryland.

"We're not well-known and could use a higher profile," said William J. McKemey, president and retired Army officer. "We don't advertise ourselves much. We just go where there's a need."

The low profile of today is a far cry from decades ago when VOA charity was well-known here. It opened The Volunteers Hospital in 1918 on Lexington Street in response to an influenza epidemic. The facility later was a maternity hospital where 10,000 babies were born. It was torn down in 1951 to make room for Lexington Market.

VOA was in the news locally last week when the Board of Estimates approved final funding for the long-planned $8.6 million Paca House VOA is developing for 106 formerly homeless men, some with HIV or AIDS, in the 100 block N. Paca St.

In recent years it also drew some attention when it took over the once notorious New Motel, known for drug and prostitution arrests, and began running the 88-bed halfway house for federal prisoners for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the 4600 block of E. Monument St.

The Volunteers in Maryland work all along the age time line.

Paca House is for adult men. The Early Learning Center, a VOA project in Woodlawn for 15 years, is for 2- to 6-year-old pre-schoolers, at a cost of $87 a week, Social Services vouchers or combination. It serves children of working parents from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and is being certified for kindergarten.

Joy S. Feinstein, the center's program director, and her staff of six direct a little world of orderly learning by 57 children at 6608-10 Dogwood Road. Rules abound: "No fighting," "Be kind, friendly and polite," "No bad words," "Listen carefully" -- and more.

One day this week, a dozen 4- and 5-year-olds, one to three-year veterans, painted with sponges, played housekeeping, churned up suds at the water table and talked at once.

"I painted that red box," said Jada Sharp, 5, "but I'm going to be a ballet dancer."

Nicole Gibson said, "I like to play housekeeping. Watch this, mister." Her baby doll was nudged and did a nifty somersault.

"I like playing here, teacher's nice," said Troy Adams. I'm going to be a race car driver."

D'Andre Carroll wanted to do "Today"s Story," the daily ritual of reading from a poster and filling in day, date, month, season and so on. Teacher asked "What's the weather?" D'Andre sprinted to the side door, opened it, stuck his hand out and looked back: "Still rainy."

The typical day for three age groups in separate rooms is divided into 20 and 30-minute learning segments, such as "number concepts" or "music and movement." The year's schedule is planned in a series of two-week "thematic units" such as "My family and Me," "Dinosaurs" and "Famous Black Americans."

"If they're ready, teach them," said Feinstein, a 33-year teacher who joined VOA last year. "It's amazing what they learn."

The area VOA, with offices in Lanham, has just hired Jann Pittman, head of the Alaska VOA as executive vice president. It also operates:

* The only privately run prison in Maryland, The Supervised Residential Center, at 1105 Fayette Street, for 95 medium security prisoners awaiting trial on non-violent charges, under a state contract.

* Five Northwest Baltimore homes for 22 mentally ill residents capable of different kinds of activities. Some clients take courses, for instance. Some work.

* Homeless shelters for men and women in Capitol Heights and affordable housing for families in Seat Pleasant.

* Programs such as "I Remember Mama" for elderly women on Mothers Day and gift-giving projects during the Christmas holiday. Eight other facilities for the homeless, substance abusers and others are in suburban Virginia. Donations of vehicles, boats and voluntary services are accepted at 1-800-948-1414.

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