Myrtle "Mama Myrt" Howerton is as comfortable prodding city leaders as she is confronting drug dealers in her Druid Heights neighborhood.
She considers it her duty to help rid Baltimore of drugs and make it a safer place for children -- no matter what it takes. Kids regularly drop by her rowhouse seeking advice on issues ranging from school to home life and sexuality.
Howerton's efforts to improve the city have earned her respect in high places -- her friends include police Commissioner Edward T. Norris and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings -- and helped to secure a commitment for a new neighborhood center.
The $1 million project, for which groundbreaking took place recently, will transform Firehouse No. 25 into a major resource offering day care, a housing counseling program, job skill development, a computer lab and, among other things, activities for teen-agers and the elderly.
A room at the center will be named for Howerton, who is affectionately called "Mama Myrt" by dozens of children in Druid Heights.
"The youth are our future, and what I saw happening I didn't like, and I said somebody had to step in -- so I stepped in," said Howerton, who has lived on Laurens Street in West Baltimore for 34 years. "They weren't going to school, there was pregnancy and drugs, and I just didn't think it was right. Somebody needed to take a stand and say that's not the way to go, and that's when I got involved with the Safe and Sound Campaign."
Safe and Sound, a 10-year effort to improve children's lives, began in 1996 with $400,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It places children in after-school programs and teaches parents effective ways to raise children.
Howerton's activities go beyond that program and include her membership on the Druid Heights Community Development Corp. board. She's chairwoman of its youth programs.
Maintaining a fast pace
Howerton has two grown daughters and is a grandmother of two, including 3-year-old Breah Matthews, whom she picks up at day care each day and cares for until the child's mother arrives. At age 58, with arthritic knees that have placed her on disability, she acknowledges that she grows weary at times.
Not that she's slowing down. A short, bespectacled woman, she isn't one to sit around. Call Howerton on her cellular phone, and she's likely to be on her way to a mall to buy clothes for families that cannot afford them.
People who know Howerton well are used to her always being on the go, always helping others and her tell-it-like-it-is attitude.
"Sometimes her honesty and bluntness are shocking, but usually they shock people into a level of reality that always is for the best," said Selwyn Ray, who works in community organizing and youth development for various groups, and has known Howerton for five years.
"I think that she is the type of individual that can face the hideous monster of self-destruction in our community with love and compassion," Ray said. "She does that on multiple levels. She deals with the police. She deals with those that are doing illegal, destructive things. She deals with little 4-year-old children, single mothers, those gripped by substance abuse and just average young men trying to make it through the maze."
Her bluntness was on display at a recent gathering of 100 children and adults at St. Katherine's Episcopal Church, where she told the audience that the police commissioner needs their help.
"He really is cleaning this city up to the best of his ability, but he cannot do it by himself," Howerton said. "You want a better city? Don't sit there and run your mouth. Some people don't like me because I like him, but those of y'all who know Mama Myrt know I don't care."
The admiration, apparently, is mutual.
Norris said he met Howerton while speaking to community groups. "She challenged me," Norris said. "She questioned whether I was going to be able to help clean up the city. She had legitimate questions. Nobody knew me here."
Praise from Norris
Norris said it didn't take long for him to realize that Howerton was serious about making a difference.
"When I started dealing with her in the community and saw what she was doing, I had tremendous respect for her," Norris said.
"She dedicates her life to making this a better place. She's the reason, really, that we do what we do, that I do what I do, for people like her," he said.
"We get a lot of credit for being heroes, but she's a true hero. She stands up to the drug dealers and the creeps, and she doesn't have a gun or a [bulletproof] vest. I'd do anything for her. I really would. Not too many people could get me to come out on a Friday night away from my family, but I'll do it for her."
Of all those who like and praise her, none are more important to Howerton than the children. Alla Gibson-Bey is one.
She said she liked Howerton immediately after meeting her four years ago at New Bethlehem Freewill Baptist Church, where they are both members.
"I liked her because she kept it real, and she don't lie to nobody," said Alla, 14, an eighth-grader at Booker T. Washington Middle School.
"She'll tell the truth. She's blunt, but I don't have a problem with her style," she said.