Hot dog man returns with brand-new cart

Donations help Harlem Park resident resume food program

March 26, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The eyes of dozens of Harlem Park children twinkled yesterday when William Henderson wheeled a shiny new deluxe hot dog cart into a concrete park lined with ruined homes, vacant lots and drug addicts.

Fatima Knight, 11, said the cart was the nicest thing she had seen in Harlem Park since five years ago, when she got a new pair of roller skates.

Her brother, 10-year-old Rasheem, said it was the nicest thing he had seen since last summer, when neighborhood boys let him touch a new dirt bike.

Daisey Foster, 10, said the roughly 5-by-5-foot stainless steel cart -- with a stove, oven, steamer, cooler, freezer and rainbow-colored umbrella -- was the nicest thing she had seen in the community since two years ago, when her mother cleaned their house and sidewalk. "The old cart was nice, but this one is nice and golden, and nice and shiny," Daisey said. "Now, in case someone's stove is broken, you can eat from the hot dog stand."

While the children marveled, the parents of some expressed gratitude to the more than 100 people who donated a total of more than $10,000 for the hot dog cart.

"I am amazed," said Tyra Wright, 26, of the 600 block of N. Carey St. "I did not think anyone cared about Harlem Park."

The donations poured in after a story in The Sun two weeks ago about how a man with an assault rifle ambushed a passing car that then smashed into Henderson's old hot dog cart, threatening his program that fed the community's welfare-dependent children free food at the end of each month.

In Harlem Park, where the last census put average yearly income at less than $8,000, parents often find it difficult to feed their children when their food stamps and public assistance checks run out each month, say residents and social service officials. For five years, Henderson said, he helped many families get by until the next check came in.

"Out here, at the end of the month, it gets hectic," White said. "Everyone is around here shouting, `Oh my goodness, what am I going to feed my child?' "

After his cart was destroyed Feb. 16, Henderson's plight prompted an outpouring of support. People also donated food and time to make sure his service would be available this month.

Henderson said he was impressed that 75 percent of the donations came from suburban residents and from as far away as Richmond, Va. Many of the people, he said, have never visited an inner-city Baltimore neighborhood and were heartbroken to learn that children sometimes go all day without eating.

Others donations came from middle-class blacks who grew up in Harlem Park and similar communities but moved to the suburbs and now feel compelled to help the community, Henderson said.

The donations ranged from two anonymous $2,000 donations to a $3 contribution attached to a note from a 70-year-old man who said he was sorry he couldn't afford more.

Donations continue to trickle in. Last week, a Bethesda couple mailed a $50 check with a letter saying, "God's blessings are evident in Mr. Henderson's service."

Another contributor, Ellen McAvoy of Towson, said Friday that Henderson "is really working in the community to fill a need, not a need I see directly in my suburban household but a need I know is there."

Plans to expand menu

Henderson had hoped to raise $2,000 for a new cart, but with the extra money, he bought the $5,000 deluxe cart Friday. He said the larger cart will enable him to prepare more items -- including dishes healthier than hot dogs -- and serve more children.

He plans to donate some of the remaining money to several Harlem Park food banks and charities, including the Harlem Park Elementary School Healthy Start program. "We can feed the bodies, but we also got to feed the mind, too," he said.

He also plans to keep some of the money to buy food and supplies to make sure his unlicensed program, usually funded by local businesses, can continue without struggling through the summer.

Henderson's efforts, under the auspices of an unregistered community group, the Harlem Park Community Advocacy, have drawn criticism from other community leaders.

They believe that Henderson does a disservice to the community because he has refused to work with traditional neighborhood groups. Henderson calls Harlem Park groups bureaucratic and says they are often bogged down by "bitter disputes over menial issues."

500 meals, to go

Yesterday, though, Henderson focused on serving 500 meals of a hot dog, applesauce, pudding and soda behind the 600 block of N. Carey St., near one of the city's most violent and drug-infested corners, where a Baltimore police cruiser sits to deter homicides.

Under a sheet of gray clouds and midafternoon drizzle, most children happily trekked to the cart when they saw it. Others needed to be coaxed to the cart by Henderson, as if they and their parents were embarrassed to take the free food.

"For the little kids, when he buys for one, he buys for all," Wright said. "All the children respect him. Some don't respect their [drug-addicted] moms, but they respect him."

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