Addicts find haven for children

Recovery: Dayspring Children's Place cares for youngsters so their parents can seek treatment.

October 22, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Linda Wynder is no greeting-card grandma in some easy rocking chair. She's vibrant, exuberant and youthful. She loves children. And she's had lots of experience with kids. She's the mother of six, grandmother of 26, and pretty soon will be a great-grandmother.

But, at 53, she looks great, brimming with energy and health.

"I am healthy," she says, laughing. "I have to stay healthy."

She's caring for six of her own grandchildren. She's a tireless volunteer at their schools and throughout the East Baltimore community where she grew up. But most of all she's supervisor of Dayspring Children's Place, a unique respite child-care program that provides a home for the children of homeless, drug-addicted women -- and a few men -- as they seek treatment.

"That's our specialty," says Pamela Talabis, Dayspring's executive director, "homeless substance abusers."

And that's how Dayspring defines its mission: "To improve the quality of life for families affected by substance abuse." Dayspring provides housing and counseling services to drug users trying for recovery.

Dayspring's having a fund-raiser with Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, at 5: 30 p.m. today at the Peabody Conservatory Library. Proceeds will help buy a new building that will more than double the Children's Place program.

Frequently, drug users, especially women, say the fear that "the system" will take their children inhibits them from seeking treatment.

"They need to know there are people out here who really care about children, their children," Wynder says. "To help them, to motivate them to help themselves, to do the things they have to do. So that's what we're about, to make it easier."

Standing between neatly made bunk beds in one of the cheery bedrooms at Children's Place, a renovated rowhouse on North Glover Street, Wynder talks about the children and their families.

"They come off the street," she says. "They've been in shelters. We've got one little boy downstairs who's never had a toy of his own. He's never had anything of his own."

The five kids who now live at Children's Place are all from the foster-care program of the Department of Human Resources.

"We just try to make them feel comfortable for this little while that people are trying to get their lives in order," Wynder says.

The chest of drawers at her side is labeled with the names of the girls who sleep here: Octavia and Lakisha. They're downstairs doing their homework. Octavia's peeling an orange at the kitchen table.

It's just like being home!" Wynder says. "We cook. We fix them lunch and breakfast."

The kitchen's spanking clean and hung with children's art work.

"We just take care of them. That's what we do, try to keep focused on keeping them happy, making them feel good."

The children stay for indefinite periods, with caregivers on hand round the clock. The kids range from newborns to 10-year-olds. They get shots and check-ups.

"They come to us with rashes and sores on their head," Wynder says. " But we just take them to the clinic. Get treatment. No blame nowhere. Mom comes. And it's OK."

They're children who have been "tossed around."

"Those children, you'd be surprised what they've been through," she says. "Those five downstairs were in trouble.

"We keep [the kids] until things get right with them and then they go," she says. "The Dayspring families usually go into treatment 30 days or 28 days and then they come back and get the babies and they're gone."

Determination to get his family back together pulled Martin Ragin out of the drug world. He, his wife Pamela and their five children live in a Dayspring Shelter Plus Care rowhouse on Orleans Street.

"I was the first guy on this program," he says. "It was a little awkward. We had to go through the groups [therapies], and there was nothing but women there! And they're talking women stuff!"

But now there are four men in Dayspring's Shelter Plus Care, which provides rental-assisted housing for 35 families. Ragin, 39, signed an agreement with a long list of requirements, which among other things prohibits drug use, guns, loud music and profanity.

He's an intense guy, and fiercely protective of his family. He worked hard to reunite them.

"It was a long process," he says. "You've got to prove to everybody you are not using drugs and you are able to take care of your family and be a responsible citizen again.

"That was something I had to prove not only to other people, but to myself. That is the hardest."

Ragin says he "got to be homeless by using. Using drugs and stuff. One thing led to another, and you get so deep that you can't get out."

Ragin's story is not uncommon in Baltimore. The official count in September was 60,928 hard drug users in the city -- contrasted with just over 6,000 treatment slots.

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