Shelter's farewell to guardian angel Reassigned: Christopher Place residents share gratitude and goodbyes with their director, a Sister of Notre Dame.

June 16, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Sister Gwynette Proctor was telling 25 formerly homeless men living at Christopher Place Academy that she would be seeing them less often because of another assignment.

Kirk Sewell, 28, who grew up in Park Heights, spoke up: "Sister, you're one strong woman. You push us, but you love us. Thank you."

The men rose for a standing ovation, one of several that day for the Sister of Notre Dame. The men live in an environment she has made into part boot camp and part home with a mother's high morals since Christopher Place was transformed from an ordinary emergency shelter in September 1996.

Under Proctor's direction, the Associated Catholic Charities facility became a school of last resort with an impressive job placement record for its clients.

All were homeless -- and some hopeless -- when they came to the two-story red brick building at 709 E. Eager St., minutes away from the Baltimore City Detention Center, where some had been inmates.

At one time almost all had useful jobs, even substantial careers, that were cut short by drug or alcohol abuse.

Most think they will never get a better chance to straighten up their lives.

"I want these men to succeed," said Proctor, a Baltimore native who was once a principal at a Roman Catholic high school in Washington. "I see the potential for good in every one of them."

For the past three months, the men have lived in a dormitory and attended courses in job readiness, work skills and character building. They are looking ahead to nine more months of support in keeping jobs, finding housing and staying clear of drugs.

Along the way is help in addiction recovery, but the men -- hard-core veterans of self-abuse by drugs -- aren't allowed to slip on Sister Gwynette Proctor's watch.

"There is zero tolerance for drugs," she said. "Make one mistake and you're gone." Five men have been expelled since their one-year term began in April.

100 percent hiring rate

John Maslanka, a businessman and volunteer who lobbies for jobs for the men at companies and government agencies, pointed to the agency's success.

"We have a 100 percent hiring rate -- 86 academy graduates in almost two years and they all have jobs," he said.

"Our men are in some excellent jobs," he said. "A welder is making $14 an hour. A computer services guy makes $55,000 at a New York hospital. A heating-ventilation-air conditioning guy makes $20,000 plus apartment."

Proctor's program fortifies her, as well as the men. One man put his face near hers and shouted with joy: "Sister, I got a job. I'm a cook out in Baltimore County." They hugged each other and other men laughed.

"Big Dog" Johnson also credits her. That's Gregory Johnson, 41. For the past 18 months, as his city sanitation truck makes rounds in Roland Park and Hampden, he has delighted in throwing around heavy bags of garbage and keeping up a constant inspirational patter.

"I love this work and owe my life to Sister," said Johnson. "She is like heaven-sent to me. Things were looking bad for me heroin for 20 years. Then Christopher took me. It's the Betty Ford of the ghetto."

No-nonsense schedule

Proctor also runs Our Daily Bread and will spend more time there after complaints that the homeless caused problems in the Cathedral and Charles streets business sector where the soup kitchen is located. Some of the Christopher Place men used to dine at Our Daily Bread.

Now, instead of lining up for free meals, they take two-hour classes in subjects such as personal finance, resume writing, computers, ethics and stress management. Attendance is required. Dozens of volunteers give instruction.

During the first three months in a no-nonsense schedule, the men also apply for jobs. When they get them, 75 percent of their earnings are held for when they go out on their own.

During the next nine months, the academy supports them in various ways as they become stable job-holders.

Since April when Sewell and 31 other men began living at Christopher Place, some faces have disappeared. The five who reverted to drugs were dismissed. Two men died of stroke and pneumonia, both remembered by new friends at emotional funerals.

Residents range from 22 to 62 years old, and the average occupant is almost 40.

"You get attached to these guys," said Maslanka. "We ask companies, 'Will you look over our guys?' Companies say, 'Yes.' Look at them. They have good attitudes, they're getting trained, they look great in suits and ties."

He was pointing to two dozen tables at a recent Catholic Charities job fair at the First Unitarian Church. Fifty men and women, 21 from Christopher Place and the rest from other programs, were being interviewed.

Sharon Cole-Pearson, an assistant vice president at First National Bank of Maryland, said the company would give tests to several applicants for jobs such as clerks, tellers and administrative workers.

"Does he have the right attitude? Can we train this person? Is he willing to grow? Does he have transferable skills? These are questions I ask myself and I find real possibilities here."

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