Program for kids drew advice from the heart

Donation: As part of `brain trust' on $5 million gift, a West Baltimore barber helps answer his own prayers for the city's children.

January 16, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

When investor Eddie C. Brown and his family were looking for advice about how to give away millions of dollars for Baltimore's young people, they didn't just call on experts in philanthropy. They sought out Lenny Clay, a West Baltimore barber for four decades.

During visits to Lenny's House of Naturals, Brown would journey with Clay to West Fayette Street at Carrollton Avenue, just outside his Poppleton shop. They would look west, toward the burned-out apartment building that Clay dreams of turning into a home for boys, and north, toward a vacant lot that quickly fills with trash every time Clay and other volunteers clean it.

"In this neighborhood, it's filled up with a lot of drugs, a lot of alcoholics," Clay said, surveying the desolate corner. "For the last 35 years, all these kids have belonged to me."

One day about a year ago, Brown, founder and president of Brown Capital Management Inc., invited Clay to his office for a meeting about how they might change things. A prominent real estate developer was there. So were the former pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church and the heads of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Bon Secours Baltimore Health System.

Brown said then that he was willing to put money behind his words - more money than Clay, 65, ever dreamed that his customer of 29 years had. "I told my wife if he had been a woman, I'd have kissed him," Clay recalled. "I still can't believe it."

The result, unveiled this month, is Brown's Turning the Corner Achievement Program, a five-year, $5 million program to help African-American middle-schoolers in two neighborhoods, one in East Baltimore and one in West Baltimore.

Brown and his wife, Sylvia, are no strangers to philanthropy. They recently committed $6 million to construct a new building at the Maryland Institute College of Art and $1 million to endow the African-American collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

But the family readily admits this project is different. It's full of potential to change things for the better. And full of the possibility of failure, too.

`Whatever it takes'

"What I'm hearing is that they're going to do whatever it takes to bring up these children," said Ralph E. Moore Jr., a longtime community advocate who until recently was vice president of the Center for Poverty Solutions. "I don't know if we've ever been that serious about that before."

The program took two years to evolve. The family's first impulse was simple: "The African-American community needs a lot of help," Eddie Brown said.

The more he hung around Clay's shop, the more Brown, 61, became convinced of that. Visit after visit, the barber told him about another kid with no parental supervision and a "brilliant" mind.

Several years ago, when Clay was mentoring a class at Diggs-Johnson Middle School made up of particularly tough youths, Brown arranged to pay for the class to learn about the Chesapeake Bay each week at the Living Classrooms Foundation. Many of the pupils improved their attitudes and their grades, Clay said.

That experience eventually led to the group of advisers that came up with Turning the Corner.

From his work in Poppleton, Clay knew who should be targeted for help - kids in middle school, for whom surviving their parents' poverty and addictions to get to high school was a major hurdle.

Clay's views came from experience.

His shop is a draw for politicians - former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. are regular customers. And haircut sessions often turn into policy debates.

But his education has come from spending so many years on the corner. A devout Muslim, Clay has spent many a night there trying to talk kids out of selling drugs, and he has given money over the years to send talented students away to private schools.

"I say my prayers five times a day, and I pray to Allah so hard that something good happens to this neighborhood," Clay said. "I've been telling people for years, don't complain about these kids on the corner if you're not going to do anything to help them."

Others among Brown's advisers - whom he called his "brain trust" - talked about doing more than just helping the kids. Keeping children successful would require aiding their families, too.

"We talked about how it wouldn't be good enough just to treat the symptoms," said the Rev. Brad R. Braxton, former pastor at Douglas Memorial and now an assistant professor at the Wake Forest University Divinity School in North Carolina. "It needed to do some systemic healing."

The ideas resonated with Brown, who as a middle-schooler in Allentown, Pa., had to fight to take college preparatory classes. Along with his wife and daughters, Tonya Ingersol and Jennifer Brown, he originally committed $1 million to $2 million to the project.

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