Foundation is living large

Success: Living Classrooms lures big-name supporters for big-time ventures - and the youths involved are reaping the benefits.

July 12, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

It wasn't James Piper Bond's old-Baltimore name that lured Ravens coach Brian Billick onto the board of the Living Classrooms Foundation. It was a fateful combination of Bond's moxie, the arrest of Ray Lewis and one unusually large wooden chair.

Billick and his wife, Kim, were looking for an organization to support, and many were looking to sign them up, too. But on a chance visit to the Living Classrooms' waterfront campus in Fells Point to speak to another group, Billick found Bond, the president, steering him through the carpentry shop where young men in trouble with the law - men whose lives resembled those of some of his players - carve a future in wood.

A few weeks later, Billick found himself ordering a "Fells Point chair" from the carpentry program. Taking to heart a comment from Kim Billick that the 6-foot-5-inch, 230-pound coach never met a chair he didn't break, the young men fashioned an oversized version: extra-long, reinforced, complete with a stool for the coach's long legs. They christened it "the Billick chair."

Another power player, sold.

Born modestly 15 years ago as the Lady Maryland Foundation with one asset - the ship itself - and 100 students, Living Classrooms has grown today to a nonprofit powerhouse that runs some 35 programs, on an $8.5 million budget that has doubled in size in little more than a year. Its programs range from maritime museums to training for construction workers. It runs programs for about 50,000 young people a year, ranging from the learning disabled to the exceptionally gifted.

Networking and reputation

Its success is both a case study in Baltimore networking and a reflection of how a good reputation, powerful friends and the right social issue can boost the fortunes of a nonprofit - just as scandal and lack of fund-raising acumen can sink them.

Billick is but one local luminary on Living Classrooms' 48-member star-studded board of trustees. It boasts names like Rouse, Schaefer and Schmoke, along with First Mariner Bank Chairman Ed Hale and state Sen. Barbara Hoffman, to name only a few. Joseph Galli, president of online giant Amazon.com, sits on the board all the way from Seattle.

When retired T. Rowe Price chief executive George Collins - another board member - decided to leave his job to build a racing boat and team called Chessie Racing for the Whitbread Round the World Race, Living Classrooms later ended up with the boat.

As it rapidly expands, Living Classrooms has started to resemble an entrepreneurial business - taking on ventures once run by for-profit companies.

This year alone, the foundation launched programs to train city and Baltimore County students for the MSPAP test aboard the Constellation; to train high-school graduates for laboratory jobs; and a "workforce development center," designed to provide five-year monitoring of graduates of foundation programs in the work world, with contacts and services documented with the precision of business goals.

It manages the Patriots of Fort McHenry; the Constellation; the Baltimore Maritime Museum, which operates three historic ships and a lighthouse; and the National Historic Seaport, a string of tourist sites around the Inner Harbor. It took over formerly for-profit ventures such as the Inner Harbor paddleboats and the Harbor Shuttle, naming it Seaport Taxi. The move paid off during the recent OpSail 2000 - the organization estimates it will have made 50 percent more than the Harbor Shuttle made a year ago in June on the Seaport Taxi alone.

The plans are so ambitious they caused billionaire philanthropist George Soros - whose international currency speculation has moved the fortunes of nations - to quip to Bond on a recent visit: "It's a real estate empire you're building."

Some of that arises from the extraordinary family connections of the group's leaders.

The organization's president is Gilman graduate James Piper Bond - the same Bond family for whom Bond Street is named, the same Piper family that started the law firm Piper & Marbury and the real estate firm O'Conor, Piper and Flynn. The group's senior vice president for development is Parker Rockefeller - yes, one of those Rockefellers.

And some of it arises from the savvy persistence of Bond, who always looks as if he has just returned from a brisk sail around the bay, wearing a uniform of khakis, oxford shirt and a Living Classrooms fleece vest. His favorite expression? "No worries."

"James latches on to you and you can't get rid of him," Billick said. "And I mean that in an affectionate way."

A slow start

It wasn't always that way. In the beginning, Bond says, educators and potential donors looked on the nonprofit as little more than a place where kids could get an afternoon on the water.

"People used to say, `That's a nice field trip, James,'" he said. "But this is not just a field trip. This is an extension of school."

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