A Taste of Opportunity

Sean Smeeton blends a homemade ice cream recipe, jobs and housing to give young Baltimoreans a chance for a productive life.

February 05, 2002|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Downstairs at 7 W. Preston St., the neighborhood cafe that boasts some of Baltimore's best ice cream is waking up to Latin jazz.

In many ways, the Sylvan Beach Cafe, with its blond wood, ginseng juice and chocolate soy ice cream, is a typical upscale cafe: A law student juggling a stack of books orders a medium latte to go. An English professor takes a coffee to her usual spot by the window.

The professor has a vague idea that something more than homemade ice cream is being made here. But she doesn't know the full story:

The guys dishing it out are young, high school dropouts. Old friends still try to woo them back into Baltimore's drug trade with the promise of big cash. They hope for something else, though. They want in on the big plan, the plan to go wholesale, open franchises and sell stock. The plan announced modestly on a sign taped to the front door: "Sylvan Beach Cafe: The next Ben & Jerry's starts here." The dream of the guy living upstairs.

Sean Smeeton is working the phones in the apartment above the cafe, chatting up restaurants, shops and institutions to buy his ice cream wholesale.

Naive? Smeeton will you give that -- he was naive when he set up this nonprofit foundation nine years ago to help men in trouble with the law run their own business, live together and change their lives. Even its name was romantic -- Sylvan Beach, after the vacation spot on Lake Michigan where he summered as a child and families passed down their cottages one generation to the next.

Naive, maybe, but bold, too. Smeeton was a 28-year-old middle-class guy on a promising career track at an accounting firm. And it might not have happened if he hadn't volunteered to coach a basketball team at Francis Scott Key Middle School in a mentoring program sponsored by his employer, Coopers & Lybrand.

Picking up a bunch of 13-year-olds from the Lexington Terrace public high-rise apartments, he had seen gang members with guns patrolling the hallway, and he was shocked. Growing up in Fairfax, Va., he'd never been exposed to anything like that. It was no wonder, given the ready market and the money that changed hands, that kids who lived at Lexington Terrace were dealing drugs.

The day a kid on his team was shot, he was putting the final touches on a major accounting report. For weeks, he had been besieged by frantic bosses. Driving to deliver the report, he realized his worry could never compare to the worry of a kid in Baltimore, a kid the same age as his younger brother: that, today, he might be killed.

After the shooting, it was hard for Smeeton to go back to being just an accountant. He became a mentor to Carroll Skipwith, the boy who was shot, visiting him at home twice a week. And he read with interest an article in Parade magazine about the founder of Delancy House in San Francisco, a nonprofit residential and commercial complex built and run by 500 ex-cons. The Delancy House businesses grossed $35 million annually. The program made perfect sense to Smeeton.

Within two years, he and a colleague at Coopers quit to start their own version of Delancy House. Skipwith, who had scored 1,000 on his SAT and was bound for college, mowed lawns with them the summer of 1993 to raise money for the project. The Sylvan Beach Foundation opened in April 1994 with five recovering heroin addicts referred by the courts. They lived quietly with Smeeton, his business partner and the partner's husband in their house in Homeland. They started their Lawn-care business with clients from the neighborhood and nearby Roland Park. Smeeton didn't tell anybody who the crew was -- for fear the stigma would cost them business.

The first year was rougher than Smeeton ever imagined. There were tensions in the house. His colleague quit. And he scrambled for money and to find another place for the five guys. A low-interest state loan and $7,000 from the Abell Foundation bought the 19th-century rowhouse on West Preston Street.

Before Smeeton moved, he learned that Carroll Skipwith, an honors student in his senior year and a likely starter on the Southwestern High School basketball team, was leading a double life. A police raid of his Lexington Terrace home turned up cocaine, thousands of dollars and guns under his bed.

Smeeton tried to have Skipwith released to his care but ultimately could only try to comfort his mother. The teen-ager was tried as an adult and convicted.

All that promise wasted -- it made Smeeton work harder in the lawn business.

Some nights he worked until 8 before returning to Preston Street for hours of self-esteem sessions with the guys. The landscaping business expanded to include customers in Baltimore County, big private landowners. The guys were supposed to run the business by themselves, but they couldn't. When anybody quit, Smeeton worried the business would fall apart. New recruits showed up at 7 W. Preston St., miraculously. But there was no time for them to study or learn the business.

New line of business

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