10 given grants to help poor Fellowships awarded under Soros program to improve inner city

Significant gains expected

July 25, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

In one of its first steps to improve life in Baltimore, the local arm of billionaire George Soros' philanthropy has awarded almost $500,000 in fellowships to 10 area residents.

The Open Society Institute-Baltimore has awarded "community fellowships" -- each worth $48,750 -- for the recipients to improve inner-city life in ways such as raising voices in song, raising vegetables or raising the consciousness of juvenile offenders.

The 18-month fellowships, announced yesterday, are a key part of Soros' plan to spend $25 million in five years to help the poor in Baltimore. Soros set up the institute here last summer to work with what he called the "supportive local government" of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke "to see what difference we can make" along with economic development and social service programs.

The 10 improvement projects reflect Soros' view that many people with full-time jobs also greatly help their communities on the side.

"I just wanted to give some of them an opportunity to devote all their energies to community activities," Soros said.

The fellowships require the recipients' full time and provide health benefits. Projects may be renewed after 18 months. Ten new fellows will be named a year from now.

Some projects range over Baltimore. Others focus on communities, such as Bel Air-Edison in the east, Park Heights in the northwest and Washington Village in the southwest.

"The 10 people are so passionate about their projects, have so much energy and have such interesting backgrounds, we think their creative ideas will have a significant impact on the quality of life in Baltimore neighborhoods," said Diana L. Morris, institute director.

'Restorative justice'

One recipient, Lauren Abramson, assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins University department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, will set up community conferencing, "a restorative justice program" that brings together youthful offenders, their families and friends with the offenders' victims and families.

The voluntary process has been used in Australia and some smaller U.S. communities to let victims express pain and anger and offenders see the damage they caused. Three Baltimore communities have set up such programs with funding assistance from the state.

"The focus is not on punishment, but repairing the damage and preventing it from happening again," Abramson said. "It's a genuinely democratic process. Everyone affected is present. It can be used to avoid juvenile court appearances. If done properly, the conferences end with useful agreements."

Environmental education

Maria Johnson-Poole, a school volunteer and former teacher, will organize an environmental education program for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Harlem Park Academy. Children will design vegetable and flower gardens and adopt a stream in the Gwynns Falls watershed.

"Most urban children think of environmental issues in rural, forested places," said Johnson-Poole. "The environment may be more important in cities. We hope our children become our environmental stewards and this becomes a model for others."

Children's memorial

Lola Willis, director of New Horizons Discovery Day Care and other children's programs, will create the Children's Memorial Museum and Baltimore Peace Center in a building in the 4000 block of Sinclair Lane, Bel Air-Edison. With names, pictures and stories, the center will honor children who have died on Baltimore streets. It will also offer peaceful ways to solve problems.

"When James Smith was shot in the barbershop, it disturbed me so much," said Willis, referring to the fatal shooting of James Smith III on his third birthday Jan. 2, 1997, in a Hollins Market-area barbershop. "God woke me up. I had to do something. We have to remember the children. We also have to know how to live in peace."

The other recipients are:

Janet Felsten, an architect and environmental planner who will help youths map the city's resources for children and their families, assess needs and track increased opportunities. This is part of the city's Safe and Sound Program to make Baltimore safer and healthier for children and teach adolescents how to organize community projects.

Community art

Mary Ferguson, co-founder and art director of the Women's Mural Project who will organize Southwest Baltimore youths and other residents to create large-scale community art projects to offset the negative effects of abandoned properties. She will work with the Pigtown/Washington Village Neighborhood Planning Commission. Themes will be inspired by local history.

Gayle Hafner, an administrative law judge for the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings who will advise caregivers of disabled children in foster care throughout Baltimore.

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