Closures may take big toll on little ones

PAL: Baltimore needs more police patrols, many say, but kids say they have nowhere to go.

February 12, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Walk into the Farring Baybrook Police Athletic League after school and ask the children playing basketball what they'd do if the center were to close.

"Stand on the corner and do nothing," says D'andre Smith, 13.

"Hang out at the playground with the crackheads," says Carlos Moody, 11.

"Stay home and probably get beat up," says a 9-year-old.

Farring Baybrook, just up the road from Brooklyn Homes public housing, has become a haven for children to study, play and get a little personal attention after school.

The Baltimore Police Department announced this week that it would close a third of its centers, including Farring Baybrook.

That may leave dozens of youngsters in this southern Baltimore neighborhood with no organized activity after school. And in this area of Brooklyn, that could mean trouble.

"In this community, that's all our kids have," said Marie Jennings, a PAL volunteer who sends her three children to the center. "This is a high crime area. Without the center, it's like putting them back on the street."

Baltimore Police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel said the department is down 400 officers and the closures would put 20 more patrol officers on the street.

It is part of an initiative of the new administration of Daniel and Mayor Martin O'Malley. Baltimore's PAL centers, which have been around since 1995, were a favorite project of former Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.

Communities around the nine closing PALs have become incensed. Many are holding rallies to voice objection.

At a protest at Waverly PAL Center in Northeast Baltimore last night, about 80 people showed up to tell stories of how much PAL means to them.

Children said they don't want to lose their playground. Parents said they were upset at the prospect of not having free after-school child care anymore.

Protest rally planned

Farring Baybrook also has planned a protest rally for next week, but hasn't yet determined the time.

"If it closes, we're right back where we started," said Rosalie Pack, president of the Brooklyn Homes Tenant Council. "Before PAL took over, Recreation and Parks ran it, but kids wouldn't come up here because they were scared. If police officers are up here, they know it's safe."

There is talk of the Recreation and Parks Department taking over the after-school program at Farring Baybrook, but plans are unconfirmed and no funding source has been identified. The department runs a program for developmentally disadvantaged youths earlier in the day in the building.

"Discussions are in the infancy stage," said Recreation and Parks spokeswoman Annette Stenhouse. "And the budget has not even been discussed yet."

Officer Stephanie Constant, who runs Farring Baybrook PAL, is dreading the day she gets the word to shut down. She says it will happen between now and June.

"I could get the call tomorrow," Constant said with a sigh. "I work for the Police Department. If that's what they tell me to do, that's what I'll do."

But she'll do it reluctantly.

Monday through Friday, the center opens at 2 p.m. On an average day, about 70 youngsters, ages 7 to 18, show up after school to play baseball, basketball, video games and pool or to wrestle. The center also offers activities like movies, bingo, cooking and dance. At closing time at 10 p.m., officers often have to coax kids into going home.

"The crime rate is extraordinary. Yes, we need more officers on the street," Constant said. "But I believe this center should stay open."

In addition to helping kids in the neighborhood, PALs also help police become more entrenched in the community, which is valuable when they need information from the street.

For four years, Constant has been forging a bond between police, kids and the community. Before she took over the center, she was a patrol officer for 16 years and was hesitant to take the job.

Officer a convert

But the children won her over after a month, and now she looks after them like they're hers. She doesn't have any of her own.

"They've got me hook, line and sinker," said Constant, 45. "This is my life, really."

When the children needed a room to keep their computers safe, she spent $800 of her money on materials and built the room herself. When they win a sports tournament against another PAL team, she takes them out for McDonald's. When a student gets a perfect attendance in study hall, she buys the pizza.

"They're always hungry," she said.

Feeding them is also a way of showing love many don't get at home. "I'm attached to these kids. They're my main concern," Constant said. "Home life isn't that good for them. They're really rough around the edges."

She said that when she first started running the center, Farring Baybrook was filled with teen-agers doing drugs and that the smaller kids were too scared to go near the building.

Sports and study hall slowly replaced the drugs. Now, the older youths at the center look out for the little guys.

"Why do they want to close us down?" asked Montrey Moore, 9, feeding hot chocolate to his sister, Quanshay McKensie, 5.

"Man, that ain't right. They're messing up all our stuff," said Corey Staley, 10. "All my friends are here."

Distance poses problem

The next-closest PAL is the Brooklyn O'Malley center (named after former Del. Joseph "Doc" O'Malley) about 12 blocks away. The children would be welcome there, but it's not likely many would go, Constant said.

"Kids are territorial, and they'll be out of their area," she said. "Some would make it -- some wouldn't."

Plus, she said, there's no gym there and it would be crowded if they all decided to relocate.

"I really care about these kids," she said. "I just want to make sure they're taken care of."

As for Constant, she said she'll probably be transferred to another PAL. And if that doesn't happen?

"I'll retire," she said.

Sun staff writer Jamie Stiehm contributed to this article.

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