E. Baltimore community honors its `jewels'

Banquet held to pay tribute to grandparents on their national holiday

September 10, 2001|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

Inside a hot auditorium yesterday in East Baltimore, three purple-draped picnic tables brimmed with the community's family treasures.

Among items on display were Joyce Dean's Woman of the Year Award, Elsie Gary's nursing certificate, crotchet works by Evelyn Turner, published writings by Brenda Brown, and -- under a card that read, "My trip to Africa" -- Bettye Brinkley's ebony carved mask from Senegal.

But the treasures weren't just on the tables. They also were the people who brought them -- grandparents.

Under the theme of "Bringing Out the Family Jewels," hundreds gathered inside the Fort Worthington Police Athletic League Center yesterday in observance of National Grandparents Day to celebrate the accomplishments, talents and contributions of East Baltimore grandparents.

Organizers used the observance -- designated as the Sunday after Labor Day in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter -- to honor remarkable deeds that include mentoring young people and, in many cases, raising grandchildren.

"We want [grandparents] to recognize their own strength and to know that they are special," program coordinator Nia Redmond said of the event made possible by a $1,500 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. "We want to place grandparents at the center of the [community] circle."

"Grandparents are not allowed to be grandparents these days," said Brenda Brown, 58, a thrift shop owner who is raising one of her five grandchildren -- a 14-year-old boy. "They have to take on the role of parents. I credit grandparents with being the pillars of this neighborhood."

According to the latest U.S. Census figures, 98,836 children in Maryland live in grandparent-headed households, up 17 percent from 1990. More than 90 percent of the state's children living in what is commonly called "kinship care" are in Baltimore, according to the Kinship Care Resource Center of Maryland at Coppin State College.

"We have to empower them with information so they can strengthen their families despite the fact they have to take care of their family members," Earlene B. Merrill, director of Kinship Care, said yesterday. "Sometimes they are taking care of two, three, four children."

Merrill's organization, the state Department of Aging and the city's Commission on Aging and Retirement Education handed out information to grandparents with referral numbers for health, housing and legal resources.

"In many cases, the elders have limited incomes and health impairments and did not plan to have this role this late in their lives," said Susan London Russell of the Department of Aging. "Obtaining health care and enrolling the kids in the school are big issues for them."

"Kids nowadays look up to entertainers and athletes, but the real role accomplishments are in the community," said 58-year-old grandmother Sarah McNair as she surveyed the memento-filled tables, dubbed "Faith Gardens" by organizers. Grandparents were invited to bring keepsakes detailing their personal accomplishments to help children become aware of the strength, information and guidance elders can offer, although only a few children were present.

"When I was young we didn't have Grandparents Day, but we listened to our grandparents and appreciated them," said Edith Burns, 79, who, with her husband, former Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns, 83, was given the "Family Jewels Award" at the event. "Today was really an honor."

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