Child care group marks two centuries of service Children: Woodbourne Group's agencies and programs exist to give disadvantaged youngsters helping hand.

October 13, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Two centuries ago, some wealthy Baltimore women took pity on families impoverished by the American Revolution, giving them food, shelter and clothing.

But Baltimore's poor and troubled children didn't disappear. The service survived uninterrupted as an orphanage under at least seven names, some of them as sorrowful as "The Home of the Friendless."

It survives today as Woodbourne Center Inc.

"If there's any older agency in Maryland, we don't know about it," said John Hodge-Williams, president and chief executive officer of the center and two related agencies, collectively called the Woodbourne Group, which is observing its bicentennial.

In its early years, Woodbourne was known as the Female Humane Association Charity School, the Baltimore Female Orphan Asylum and, when boys were accepted, the Baltimore Orphan Society. It purchased its 12-acre property on Woodbourne Avenue in 1926.

Woodbourne, believed to be the country's fifth oldest child care agency, once described its charges in terms that summoned images from Charles Dickens novels: "Most were not only destitute of common decency in their deportment, but wholly ignorant of the first principles of right and wrong; in truth some of them might have been savages."

Children have legal rights they didn't have 200 years ago, but many still have moderate to severe emotional and behavioral difficulties and need specialized attention, said Hodge-Williams.

Ambitious agenda

Best known for its residential programs, foster care and other services for disturbed adolescents from broken homes, the private, nonprofit agency is marking its 200 years in typically ambitious fashion.

It is operating two city schools -- Robert W. Coleman Elementary School and William H. Lemmel Middle School -- and helping run another, Frederick Douglass High School, in a community partnership directed by staffer Sam Abney. These efforts center on areas of West Baltimore that have produced many of its clients.

For more than a year, Woodbourne has been making plans to play host to a national meeting, "Rebuilding Our Inner Cities," Nov. 12-13 at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, a gathering of hundreds of social services professionals, civic leaders, community activists and volunteers to discuss "best practices" and cooperative approaches.

It is erecting three buildings at its Woodbourne Avenue campus in Northeast Baltimore that are expected to open in the spring. With the new facilities there will be space for 52 children. In recent years, average stays have been cut by more than half, from two years to 6 to 9 months.

Woodbourne will be exhibiting its achievements and honoring supporters at its annual dinner Oct. 27.

The $22 million agency employs 600 people and runs 14 programs at 11 sites in the Baltimore area. The group consists of the center, the Woodbourne Foundation and a subsidiary whose profits are returned to the group, Advanced Resource Management Systems Inc.

Difficult undertaking

Of all the challenges Woodbourne undertakes, the community partnership is one of the most ambitious and most difficult: a long-term promise to change three schools into community centers improving adults' and childrens' lives in the Mondawmin area.

The partnership has drawn early praise.

'Sense of the future'

"Woodbourne is giving the children a sense of the future," says Coleman Elementary Principal Addie E. Johnson. "It's a way out of deprivation and an adventure. It's giving new opportunities to children, parents and teachers."

Part of community

Woodbourne officials discovered their programs worked when there was close supervision, either at Woodbourne or in visits to students' homes. Once Woodbourne advisers were no longer around, the students drifted back to the bad grades, drugs, alcohol or crime common to their neighborhoods, Hodge-Williams said.

"We had to become part of the community and we think the schools, with everyone's help, can be agents of change," said Hodge-Williams. "We are on a tough, tough road, but we think the partnership is going in the right direction."

The agency began the partnership by asking the school's three principals what they need. Plenty, it learned. Partners include parents, staff, students, foundations and other contributors, a coalition of city agencies, state and federal agencies and businesses.

Additional opportunities

Besides regular classes, Woodbourne is offering "health, recreational, human and career development services".

For example, Dr. Carol Jack Scott has introduced "body-mind wellness" to teach children, parents and staff how to prevent illness. Local colleges are offering a master's program for teachers. Others give management training to administrators and GED courses to parents. Gettysburg College students come to help clean up the neighborhood.

"Mr. Sam" to many, Abney is directing 10-week leadership programs for students. Topics include spiritual growth, conflict resolution, the importance of education, community participation and individual development.

Parents are key

The partnership considers parents the key to school reform. A joint Parent Teacher Association Coalition is increasing participation in PTAs being formed at each school. A Parent Academy begun at Coleman several years ago is spreading. Parents get training in chaperoning, helping in the cafeteria, preparing students' art materials, monitoring school safety and storytelling.

"We're bringing the family into the schools," said Abney. "Parents are positive. They take a more active role in the schools and their childrens' work. It takes a village, and we're becoming a community family."

Information: 410-435-9300.

Pub Date: 10/13/98

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