Waiting to keep her word Dedicated: The killing of children hasn't stopped, so neither will the advocate for a memorial museum to the young lives lost.

September 08, 1998|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

The Children's Memorial Museum wouldn't be the first civic project to fall behind schedule. Hoops are hoops.

The memorial museum is a work-in-progress of a determined Baltimorean named Lola Willis, who is planning a Baltimore peace center to memorialize the children killed each year by violence on city streets.

The peace center -- featuring a bulletin board dotted with pictures and stories about the slain children -- would open in a renovated church building in the East Baltimore community of Bel Air-Edison.

That's the plan. This is the timetable: Willis said last spring that she hoped to have the memorial bulletin board up sometime this summer.

After her proposal caught the attention of City Hall, Willis also expected to have $140,000 in city money in hand by July. The money is needed, she says, to renovate a church building at 4000 Sinclair Lane -- the future site of the Baltimore Peace Center and Children's Memorial Museum.

Those two things haven't happened so far. The bulletin board is still in the drawing-board stage. Willis has been counting on parents and family members of slain children to donate pictures and mementos for the memorial museum. As of late August, Willis has heard from only two families.

Willis' idea for the memorial was portrayed in a March episode of "Homicide: Life on the Street" -- the Baltimore-based TV drama. In the fictional museum, the bulletin board was crammed with photos, notes, small toys, artwork. It was hard not to think about children in Baltimore who die in drive-by shootings or in barbershop chairs or at bus stops.

As the summer winds down, Willis is again asking people to contribute. The Children's Memorial Museum is looking for your stories of loved ones who have been killed due to gun violence. Please help us stop the killings! says her flier. The museum number is 410-485-6644.

As for Baltimore's financial involvement, Willis says the city pledged $140,000. "The money that they promised us by the early summer should be there now," Willis says. "I wish they could push that money through."

Willis' weekly habit is to call the city's Housing Department to speak with Catherine Caskey, on whose desk the proposal has landed. To say the least, it's not the first idea to come calling -- "there are tons of good ideas."

But Willis' tenacity and belief in the project has convinced the city "to help her get going," Caskey says. "We have a lot of faith in her vision. But while it's very admirable in its goals, there is a business side to it, and we need to feel more comfortable."

The city wants to know whether a peace center could support itself over the years. The city doesn't want to be in the business of operating it, Caskey says. Before committing itself to financing the building renovation, the city will hire a consultant within the next two months, Caskey says.

"Our decision will depend on what the consultant says -- whether the museum is feasible in the long term."

Willis still hopes to open the peace center next year. The bulletin board will go up as soon as she hears from more families.

Despite the delays, the summer has hardly been a bust for Willis. People have been sending her poems and even songs memorializing Baltimore's slain children. Willis wants to hire musicians to record the songs for a Children's Memorial Museum compact disc.

In July, she was one of 10 residents awarded a $48,750 community fellowship from the Open Society Institute-Baltimore -- the local arm of billionaire George Soros' philanthropy. Soros plans to spend $25 million in five years toward improving inner-city life through community projects.

Besides her community work, Willis still directs New Horizons Discovery Day Care in East Baltimore. The fellowship means that next month, Willis will be able to work full-time as director of the memorial museum.

Which means, quite possibly, that City Hall can expect many more calls.

Pub Date: 9/08/98

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