Former Army officer assumes command over city nonprofit

Village Learning Place offers programs for kids in former library branch

February 04, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Eric O.A. Miller III sat down at the Village Learning Place's downstairs cafe last week and ordered the "executive director special" in a kind of jesting rapport with the youths who work behind the counter.

The former Army lieutenant colonel is a new addition to the staff of 17 at the nonprofit VLP, as it is known in the North Baltimore neighborhood of Charles Village.

Miller, 50, arrived in mid-November, succeeding Jennifer Feit, who steered the VLP during its infancy as a community-based learning center, which started in 2000. It is housed in a century-old Enoch Pratt Free Library branch on St. Paul Street that was closed by Pratt Director Carla D. Hayden in 1997.

Feit, who is on maternity leave, will return to the VLP as development director in March.

Miller said he was aware of the community center's progress. Starting from scratch after the failure of activists' efforts to keep the library open, the center's annual budget has grown to $500,000, raised from foundation grants and the state. The city has allowed the nonprofit to use and renovate the building, charging a nominal fee, but has not contributed books to the stacks.

"I was in awe that the community rallied to save the facility," Miller said. "My work will be keeping the momentum going. I feel blessed to come into an organization this healthy."

Many offerings

He enumerated the assets under the building's slanting roof: "Peace camp, story time, homework clubs, a computer lab with free access to the Internet." With a number of children's programs, the VLP has blond wood shelves that are filling with books to lend.

A reading garden is planned for the rear of the building and will be named after philanthropist Enoch Pratt, who lived to see the completion of the St. Paul Street library branch.

Miller is impressed with the state-funded teen entrepreneur program, which allows 16 teens to operate the Yea Cafe coffee and juice bar, equipped with espresso machines. The idea is that they will learn by doing business planning in a situation that prepares them for the work force.

"Baltimore's home," he said, speaking affectionately of the place he went to college (Loyola College Class of 1973). Because his father was also a career Army officer, Miller attended four high schools, he said.

After tours of duty in Germany, Georgia, California, Texas and the Pentagon, Miller finished his military career at Fort Meade.

He worked as a financial planner for four years and took his first nonprofit job with the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, taking care of a retreat house for students and church members.

"The culmination of all those experiences is allowing me to prepare [the VLP] for its next level," Miller said. "It's been 18 months since it was a grass-roots startup. Now it has to mature so it's an even greater asset to the community."

He said he'd like to see more grown-ups come through the door and get VLP library cards.

"We need to raise the Charles Village awareness of what we do," Miller said, adding that sometimes he speaks with strangers on the street who know little of what's happening within the bright yellow walls.

A `fresh approach'

He also hopes to find allies among other community organizations, including the recently established Peabody Heights Homeowners Alliance.

Using his Army leadership skills in a city neighborhood does not appear to daunt him. "Of all my experiences, understanding people is [the most] important," he said.

Miller already has made a friend in Demetreus Gregg, 15, a high school freshman who is a VLP regular and the cafe's chief financial officer.

"He has a fresh approach to the overall operations. He interacts well with the staff and patrons," Demetreus said. "It encourages others to be productive. There was a vision of strengthening community relations, then Eric came in and jumped all over it."

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