Reclaiming a piece of playland for kids

Unleaded : Briscoe Playground was the first public stop on an AmeriCorps anti--lead-poisoning campaign.

August 06, 1999|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

On a North Baltimore playground, the hobbyhorses' brightly colored coats reflect a new age: For the first time, the area is free of lead paint.

"A lot of people slow and admire them," said Wallace McGinniss, whose rowhouse affords a good view of the horses, jungle gyms shaped like a train and a snail, the new swing set and a hopscotch board. "They're talking about the horses catching their eyes."

The AmeriCorps project to eliminate lead paint at Briscoe Playground in the 1500 block of Abbotston St. was the idea of Tarik Keene-El, 21, a West Baltimorean who signed up for President Clinton's national service program.

The project hit home for his fellow West Baltimorean Keyzet Thompson, 21, the mother of two small children diagnosed with lead poisoning, who enlisted as an AmeriCorps worker.

"That hurt me to the heart, the day they told me" the children had lead poisoning, she said. "I could not stop crying."

Her son, Shawn, 2, is hyperactive, she said, and her daughter, Ke-Shawn, 5, has difficulty learning, which are symptoms of lead poisoning.

"By me knowing, that helps me help others," she said.

In June, Thompson and an AmeriCorps team led by Keene-El showed up to transform what had become a grim acre of urban wreckage, strewn with peeling lead-based paint and broken glass.

In a few days, they scraped the playground equipment, swept, cleared and reclaimed a patch of city land in lead-free red, green, yellow and blue.

"It was a [health] hazard and an eyesore," said Joshua Reece, 27, of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, which oversees AmeriCorps members working on anti-lead-poisoning projects, usually in private homes. The work was done under the auspices of ClearCorps, a national lead-poison prevention program, which is part of AmeriCorps. Baltimore is one of six cities, including Pittsburgh, Detroit and Milwaukee, participating in the program.

Lead poisoning affects one in five urban children, causing brain damage and behavioral problems that have been linked to juvenile delinquency.

The poisoning is caused mainly by young children ingesting paint chips. Damage caused by lead poisoning is generally irreversible, but treatment can reduce lead levels in the blood.

The problem is acute in Baltimore, second only to Chicago in incidence of lead poisoning among children. Almost one in three Baltimore children have elevated blood lead levels, studies show.

Briscoe Playground was the first public place the Baltimore team tackled, and it was a triumph for Keene-El, who saw the site nearly a year ago and wrote to city recreation and parks official Stephanie Esworthy for permission to clean it.

"When I [saw] it, I thought, `There you go, right there,' " he said. "I automatically knew."

The playground cleanup is seen as a gift by parents such as Bryant Williams, 36, a roofer.

"When I come home from work, let me tell you, it's a blessing. And it's pretty, ain't it?" said Williams, smiling as his two young sons played on the Briscoe swings.

Added Diane Smith, a city employee who has lived across the street from Briscoe nearly all her life: "Around here, there's nowhere to play. It's really made a big difference."

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