A neighborhood says thank you

Collington Square credits Melva Jones for community work

June 05, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

There are countless people working to bring East Baltimore back from despair. Some are politicians with carefully thought out answers and a desire to be in the spotlight. Some are imposing personalities who make things change by force of will.

Then there's Melva Jones: a shy and graceful woman who leads with her faith and always prefers giving others credit even though people say she is responsible for helping to improve the Collington Square neighborhood.

Jones, 44, got a healthy dose of recognition yesterday at Sunday services at Israel Baptist Church at Preston and Chester streets. The pews were packed with roughly 300 people on a day set aside to honor the work done by the Mattie B. Uzzle Outreach Center, founded six years ago across Chester Street from Israel Baptist. Known as "Mattie B." in the neighborhood, the center offers assistance to men and women with drug abuse problems.

Jones is the center's director and symbolic mother to the men and women who seek help there. Last month, Jones was chosen one of 10 people nationwide who were each awarded a $100,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The grant is given to people who devote their lives to providing health services to the poor.

"I feel one emotion today, and that emotion is sheer joy," said Jones, a nurse who as center director oversees the administration and programs offered by the center. "But it's not about me. It's from just seeing the faces of the people we have helped, and seeing them healthy and respected now."

Only men live at Mattie B., which sends its clients to drug counseling programs run by Johns Hopkins Hospital. About 20 males reside at the halfway house. They call themselves "The Regulators" as a way of creating a supportive group identity and watching over one another as they struggle to escape the clutches of drugs. Alumni often come back to support new members.

"The Regulators" were joined yesterday by a small group of women in recovery and those who have gone through the six-week stay at the center, which has served close to 1000 people since it opened five and a half years ago.

"They come to us from all walks of life, some with jobs, some without," said Jones. "What they have in common is they're crying out for help, and that's why we choose to be here."

Jones, a longtime nurse, came to Mattie B. at the request of the Rev. H. Walden Wilson, pastor of Israel Baptist. Wilson had long wanted to establish a recovery program in the heart of Collington Square, one of Baltimore's most troubled neighborhoods.

When the center was about to become a reality, Wilson asked Jones, a member of the congregation then working as the director of nursing at a local hospital and one of the church's most dedicated members, if she would become its director.

"I had been looking for the best way to help out this community, so when I was called to do so, I jumped right into the fray," said Jones, who works with an operating budget of about $300,000, one-third of which comes from government sources.

She is always there for them, the center's residents and alumni said yesterday. Hers is the comforting face they see at the end of their day of treatment, a day that begins and ends with what Jones calls "walking the gantlet": a journey on foot from the Uzzle center to a Hopkins-run treatment facility about a mile away.

Walking side by side, the men make their way through drug corners and narrow alleys where many once sold and used drugs. Dealers and former friends tempt them each day. Still, they press on, sometimes singing spirituals as they pass through, said McKinley Williams, 42, an alumnus regarded as the leader of "The Regulators."

The gantlet is a vital part of the treatment at Mattie B. If you can survive the walks during your six-week outpatient rehab, the theory goes, you can show the rest of the community that change can happen. At the end of a difficult day you are met by Melva Jones, opening the door for you, her shy smile a sign that you've made it through the day's most difficult moments.

"Her mission is the church's mission: to spread love and hope beyond the walls of the church and to have a positive affect on the community," said Bernard Taliaferro II, a parishioner at Israel Baptist. "If you compared where the neighborhood was 6 years ago to now, you'd see that it is working."

The Collington Square neighborhood is becoming one of inner city Baltimore's success stories. Backed by a proactive consortium of churches and nonprofit organizations, the neighborhood, once known as one of the most violent in the city, appears well on the way to righting itself.

When the Mattie B. Uzzle center was built in 1994, the cinder block and cement building was the first new structure in the neighborhood in four decades, residents say.

The specter of drugs and violence still hangs in the air, but it is being offset by the signs of civic pride: fresh paint, murals, newly planted trees, cleaner streets.

Yesterday, inside Israel Baptist, the newfound pride was palpable.

Between rousing drum- and piano-backed spirituals, there were heartfelt stories. Tales of men and women who had once given up on life. Tearful apologies for blows inflicted upon the neighborhood. But most of all, they expressed appreciation for the people dedicated to finding answers.

The celebration "gives us a chance to honor Miss Jones," said Anthony Marable, 30, who admitted he once dealt and used drugs, helping to cripple Collington Square. "Lord knows where we'd be without her."

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