Center creates a feeling of family Recreation: At Rognel Heights Cultural Center, the young people who visit each day find support in addition to education, culture and sports.

August 15, 1997|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

Cynthia and Sitawi Jahi have done what many people deemed impossible -- run a city recreation center as a private business, to the applause of many neighborhood residents.

After putting up with the indignities of a leaky roof and no heat their first year at the center, the husband-wife team set about creating one of the most ambitious such programs in the city, encompassing education, culture and sports at the former Rognel Heights Recreation Center in West Baltimore.

"If running a rec center is just a job, sometimes people don't have the extra motivation to make the sacrifices to make a program succeed," said Sitawi Jahi. "But we were able to weather the storms because we don't see this as just a job. We have a bigger vision."

With Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke seeing no alternative to handing over control of at least 10 recreation centers to the Police Athletic League this fall, it's instructive to see what has been accomplished at Rognel Heights, which area residents and others laud for providing mentoring and a more diverse program than is offered by PAL- or city-run centers.

Sarah Horsey, principal at the center's adjoining Rognel Heights Elementary School from 1989 to 1996, credits the Jahis' operation with helping to boost attendance and standardized test scores at the school.

Without the center "we would have lost a lot more of our young people to drugs, to peer pressure, to teen-age pregnancy," Horsey said.

"They've done a lot with very little support or resources," said City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, whose 4th District includes Rognel Heights.

"I only have good things to say about it," said Joseph A. Tates, Edmondson Village Community Association president.

A visit to the center, a few blocks from Edmondson Village by Leakin Park, shows the economics of such a mom-and-pop operation. Toilet paper is rationed because the budget is tight. The only telephone is a hall pay phone. Office furniture, a computer and kitchen appliances were bought at fire-sale prices at federal government surplus sales. Recreation equipment is at a minimum, too.

But the Jahis have created the feeling of a big extended family for the 300 or so neighborhood children who participate in their programs.

Principles of responsibility

The center is based on the principles of black liberation thinkers such as Jawanza Kunjufu, author of "Motivating Black Youth for Success," which asks African-Americans to take responsibility for their own welfare, rather than look to the government for help.

The emphasis on African and African-American culture has grown so large that the Jahis recently changed the name to Rognel Heights Cultural Center and sell T-shirts and hats bearing that moniker.

The nontraditional community center is successful because so many children think of the Jahis almost as concerned relatives, said Alnita Sherrill, a parent and summer camp counselor.

"My kids just love it here," Sherrill said.

"Listening to the Jahis has led me in the right direction," said LaToya Davis, 14, who has taken dance and drama classes at the center for several years. "So far, I haven't done anything I'm not supposed to do."

The children's affection for the Jahis was clear during a recent visit as little ones ran to clasp Cynthia Jahi's hand and teens sought the counsel of her husband.

At morning circle time, led by camp counselor Lola Jenkins, the 40 day campers, ranging in age from 4 to 13, spent about 45 minutes in a variety of activities, including reciting the seven principles of Kwanzaa, an African-American harvest celebration that stresses racial pride and the importance of self-determination and economic cooperation.

Cynthia Jahi led them in reciting adages, including "Good, better, best, never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is best."

The children split into four groups for music, art, education, and Swahili, plus sports. The youngsters also take field trips and long walks on a spur of the Gwynns Falls Trail in Leakin Park that they helped design.

Before getting involved with the center, Cynthia, 41, and Sitawi, 45, had quit their jobs to run a performing arts troupe. She had authorized benefits for the Social Security Administration and he had been an Urban League youth counselor.

Effort to save center

In late 1992, alerted that the city planned to close the recreation center, the couple joined with local groups to try to save it.

In March 1993, Rognel Heights was one of several recreation centers turned over to private groups because of municipal budget constraints, but it's the only one now run as a full-time center, city officials say.

The collective that was formed to run the Rognel Heights center fell apart as problems with the building increased, leaving only the Jahis, they said.

"At that point, we had gotten disappointed and frustrated and wanted to walk away from it," said Sitawi Jahi. "But we just decided that it was a test that God was putting us through."

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