'God's American Volunteers' Centennial: Local Volunteers of America branch runs broad range of social services.

September 30, 1996

MARYLAND'S ONLY privately run prison is a 95-bed medium security facility located at 1105 East Fayette Street in Baltimore City and operated by Volunteers of America. This is just one of the service areas of the Chesapeake branch of VOA, which celebrates its 100th anniversary Saturday and provides children's, mental health and developmentally disabled services, homeless assistance, substance abuse treatment and affordable housing for more than 7,000 people a year in Maryland and Virginia.

VOA's Chesapeake branch was established in Baltimore by Ballington and Maud Booth. They had originally worked for the Salvation Army -- which had been founded in London by Mr. Booth's father, William Booth. Eventually the son rebelled -- after his father insisted that funds raised in America be diverted to work in England and India. The younger Booth argued that needs in America were at least as great as in those foreign countries. He created an organization that was originally called "God's American Volunteers." In the early years it operated quite similarly to the Salvation Army. Until the 1980s, VOA members even wore uniforms and had military ranks. Nowadays, paid staffers do most of its work.

Today's VOA is a non-denominational Christian organization, many of whose top leaders are ordained ministers. "We are a church without services," says William J. McKemey, the Chesapeake branch's president.

Although VOA has been here all those years, it is not as well known as some other charities. The reason seems to be that the organization believes its deeds speak more loudly than tooting its own horn. VOA has always operated significant programs. In 1918, responding to an influenza epidemic, it opened a hospital downtown. More than 10,000 babies were born in its maternity ward before the facility was torn down in 1951 to make room for Lexington Market's expansion.

It is fitting that one of VOA's current projects is Paca House, a 106-unit single-occupancy residence building, near Lexington Market. Upon completion, it will provide individual rooms for men and women, who are elderly, disabled or homeless or suffer from AIDS or HIV. There is little glamour in VOA's work, but its results make a big difference to the community.

Pub Date: 9/30/96

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