Children's Guild puts harmony into young lives born of discord

May 09, 2002|By Michael Olesker

AL SAUNDERS remembers the first time he took one of the kids from the Children's Guild to lunch. As they waited for their food, the boy calmly described the day he saw his mother stabbed to death by her boyfriend. Then, Saunders remembered, lunch arrived. Before he took a bite of it, the boy said a beautiful grace.

They do the best they can. At the Children's Guild, they take some of the most traumatized kids in the metro area - kids exposed to physical or sexual abuse and troubled ever since, kids with their emotions sprawled all over the place, some of them children of addicts, many kicked out of every school they've attended - and try to bring some order, and some grace, into their lives.

Dottie Tim remembers her introduction to the Children's Guild, too. She remembers one kid, maybe 5 years old, snapping, "I ain't playin' no bleepin' duck-duck-goose." She remembers a 10-year-old snarling at a classmate, "Shut the bleep up, I'm trying to sing."

Saunders and Tim spend a lot of time with such children. They're musicians whose jazz riffs bring grace notes every Sunday to the cafe at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Also, every week, they spend a day working with youngsters at the Children's Guild.

Like the other morning. Just inside the big front doors of the McClean Boulevard school, a teacher stood over a boy who looked about 14. The kid struggled to hold onto his emotions.

"Is something upsetting you?" the teacher asked. His tone was firm but unthreatening. The boy wore jeans and a black hooded sweat shirt, and he sat in front of a work area transformed into a gardenlike setting, colorful and comforting.

"What's upsetting you?" the teacher asked again.

"Family problems," the boy muttered into his chest.

"Why don't we go down the hall and talk about it?" the teacher said.

The boy looked up. Behind the teacher were the colorful flowers. The teacher wore a look that said, We can work this out. The kid took a deep breath, stood up, and the two walked down the hall.

"These are kids that the schools can't handle," Children's Guild President Andrew Ross said moments later. "They've knocked out windows, kicked out doors, and taken their anger out on themselves. We approach them as though they're gifted and talented. We call it transformation education."

For every 10 kids, there is a teacher, a teacher's aide and a social worker. There is classroom work (grades one through eight) and work beyond the classroom. One day, taken to the Herring Run watershed to work with professionals, they found contaminated water.

"They felt as if they'd made a difference," Ross said. "You build on positives, and you show them there's another world out there."

"Most of the kids," added Chris Siciliano, director of development, "are emotionally disturbed. They've had watershed moments of trauma. While most of us were learning family values, they were learning survival skills. They've had abuse of all kinds, and it's left them unable to regulate their emotions. We teach them coping skills."

The average child stays about two years and then goes back to a mainstream school. School officials say the rate of return to the Children's Guild is minimal.

"Being here," says librarian Lois Zajic, "is an inspiration. They come in here volatile. You see screaming and shrieking. It's the outcome of all the crises in their lives. And this transformation happens. The teachers are so dedicated and skillful, and so devoted and loving."

In a little dressing room now, Dottie Tim hovered over a 10-year-old girl named Ronnika and adjusted a blue wig for her. Ronnika looked in the mirror. She seemed to see herself as someone previously unrecognizable. She was primping to sing a song. In a big room down the hall, the student body gathered to hear a concert. Ronnika would sing "I Believe I Can Fly."

Maybe she could. For the next hour, hearts soared. With Dottie Tim and Al Saunders in charge, about 15 kids sang, danced, played instruments. All took part in a thing so rare in their lives: simple human joy, accompanied by the sounds of approval.

A couple of elementary-age kids played "Kansas City" on saxophones, backed by two others on drums. Then a 16-year-old girl played a clarinet solo. "She talks to no one," a social worker whispered. But, bathed in cheers, the 16-year- old's features blossomed like a flower. A few minutes later, the big room erupted in more applause as 10-year-old Ronnika, in her blue wig, sang:

"I believe I can fly,

I believe I can touch the sky."

Maybe she can. At the Children's Guild, they search for new horizons - and for a little grace in their troubled lives.

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