Recreation centers struggling to serve children in an atmosphere of disrepair Roofs leak, equipment and money are scarce

November 18, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

When rain falls, the lights flicker out in South Baltimore's small Solo Gibbs recreation center.

So supervisor Geraldine Clifton is forced to do what she always does -- search for new light bulbs and try not to remember that she'll have to raise more money to pay for them.

"There are holes in the ceiling," Clifton explained. "When it rains, the lights blow out."

Some of the city's recreation centers could use an extensive overhaul -- new ceilings, floors, play equipment and more staff. But, at a time when city coffers are shrinking, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has balanced the books in part by giving less money to the Department of Recreation and Parks, which has a $33 million budget.

That means youngsters at some of the city's 59 recreation centers will have to get used to playing in dusty, drafty buildings. They will have to make do with old board games with missing pieces, broken baseball bats and flattened basketballs.

"We've got a big problem overall with our roofing situation," said Alma Bell, the department's public information officer. She said that there is a plan to fix the roofs, but funding for the repairs is still not firm.

Last week, Schmoke formed a task force to find ways the department can generate some of its own money. He hinted that the centers would be nearly useless unless a new source of money is found.

Making do at Solo Gibbs

Until then, Clifton said she will work to keep the 50 or so children who file into her crumbling recreation center every day after school entertained and educated.

The youngsters "have to realize they have to work with what little we got," said Clifton, who has worked at Solo Gibbs for seven years. As a child in the 1970s she used to play at the recreation center.

Solo Gibbs sits beyond the three huge rusting gas holders near Camden Yards. On each flank of the tiny building are metal and wooden jungle gyms.

Inside, are bathrooms for girls and boys, each with huge holes in the ceilings, a storage closet, a small office and a tiny playroom divided into three sections for weights, computers and a television.

Limited resources

The weights are sparse. The benches are old and rickety with the padding worn down to the wood. The four computers need software. The 20-inch television is the most popular piece of equipment in the center.

As a dozen or so children noisily burst through the doors this week, they made a beeline to the television, which was playing "Legends of the Fall," an R-rated movie video with violence and adult situations.

Seventh-graders Ciara Davis and Kdasha Brooks sat at a nearby table doing their geography homework. Their conversations were hardly audible over the din of the action-packed video. They said they come to the recreation center a lot.

"I wish we had more parties," Ciara said.

"And skates," Kdasha added.

Community support helps

Bell said that not all recreation centers in the city are in bad shape. "Much of what you see in a recreation center is a reflection of what the community is able to do."

Gardenville recreation center in northeast Baltimore and Northwood recreation center in north Baltimore are in large facilities, offer a wide array of classes, such as arts and crafts, and have good equipment.

What makes those centers successful is that many residents volunteer their time and skills. That's not the case at Solo Gibbs and many other centers in poorer neighborhoods.

But the residents in those neighborhoods are beginning to push for change. They want more staffing and voluntarism, and they want the Police Department's Police Athletic Leagues to take over their recreation centers.

"What I'm hearing is that more community groups are asking for a PAL center," said 6th District Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who heads the recreation and parks subcommittee.

The Police Department has taken over 11 recreation centers, with great success. Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier wants to increase that to 29.

Clifton doesn't think PAL should take over Solo Gibbs. All she wants is to have more parents show interest.

More parents have become involved lately. Clifton said that in March she helped form a committee of 15, which has planned bake sales, a family night and tree decorating.

The money they collect is going toward a Ping-Pong table, which the children tell her they want most.

"This is our rec center. We have to work hard," Clifton said. "It is the only way we are going to keep it."

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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