Unpaid power bill threatens youths' after-class haven

Couple needs $2,000 more today to meet final BGE deadline

November 18, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

For the poor children in this small pocket of Northeast Baltimore, the vacant old warehouse tucked behind Harford Road has become a fantasy land.

The vast belly of the 1700 Friendship St. building, where huge trucks once rumbled out of the asphalt parking lot, is filled with gleeful children playing with video games, musical instruments and computers.

Yet Beverly and Robert Woodland's dream to provide an after-school haven for about 65 neighborhood youth may come to a halt today.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is threatening to shut off power to the program because the Woodlands have failed to pay the electric bill for four months.

Neighborhood activists, who have grown to appreciate the couple's dedication despite their lack of fiscal skills, have been scrambling all week to raise the $3,000 needed to keep the lights on at the former warehouse the Woodlands have renamed "Destiny of Hope."

Last week, City Councilman-elect Kenneth J. Harris formed a neighborhood task force to aid the urban missionaries. After helping raise $1,000 since Sunday, including contributing $100, Harris contends the utility is unwilling to bend, which could leave children back playing on the streets by the end of today.

"Everybody has to pay their bills," Harris said. "It's not that we don't want to pay the bills, but that's a lack of sensitivity."

BGE counters that it's being painted as the big, bad wolf ready to throw poor children onto the sidewalk.

The company said it has worked with the Woodlands to settle the bill but that the efforts have failed.

Yesterday, BGE extended its deadline -- which has repeatedly been pushed back weeks at time -- one more day. If the bill isn't paid today, the company said, the operation is in jeopardy of having its electricity turned off, darkening the computers and video machines.

"We have gone to great lengths to work with them," BGE spokeswoman Brenda Pettigrew said. "We are a business that has given $11 million to community groups" annually.

Created in home

Destiny of Hope supporters acknowledge the Woodlands' haphazard fiscal management.

Beverly Woodland began the program out of her West Baltimore basement eight years ago for friends of their four children.

After gaining nonprofit status for it in 1991, she funded the operation with profits made in managing seven rental properties throughout the city.

The couple moved into the warehouse last year after gaining a mortgage.

Computer and piano keys

When the doors opened, children such as 9-year-old Dwan Lovett began to trickle in, fascinated by the chance to climb around in a space several stories tall.

Yesterday, Dwan leaned over its worn brown piano after school, pounding out a boogie-woogie blues line that Robert Woodland, a rhythm and blues band member in the 1960s, taught him.

"The other kids told me something was opening up around the corner," said Dwan, who took a break to do back flips across the vast, empty floor. "I like to come here to play with the computers and piano."

Across the room, three children immersed themselves in playing video games, machines donated by a business and rigged by volunteers so that the children don't have to pay a quarter.

Help from Hopkins office

Opening the facility without establishing finances to keep it running might appear irresponsible. But for backers like Bill Tiefenwerth, the Woodlands' mission is addicting.

Tiefenwerth directs the Johns Hopkins University community relations office that links college students with service projects. Someone called him last year, asking if he could help the Woodlands install dozens of computers donated by United Parcel Service.

He has been coming back ever since.

`Message of learning'

"If you see it and experience it, you're a part of it," said Tiefenwerth, who helps with the computer learning center on site. "It's something that has really caught on with my students. It's more than a playground, it also has a message of learning."

Beverly Woodland, a 52-year-old Jamaican native, operates the facility on a wing and a prayer. Yesterday, she sat in her makeshift office cutting up raffle tickets printed since Sunday to raise money for the electric bill.

Divine mission

Much as a mother would, Woodland requires children who frequent her place to do their homework and bring their report cards, she said. She built a stage, complete with flowers and microphones, in the center of this once-industrial cavity so children can show their talents and be recorded, an exercise that boosts their pride, she said.

"I have been passionately, divinely given this mission by God," Woodland said.

If BGE workers show up to shut the power today, Harris and other supporters pledge to try to block them, willing to be arrested in support of the Woodlands. "These are extreme measures," Harris said. "But it's important."

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