Using fun to battle urban hopelessness

Program: Teen-agers in the Safe and Sound Campaign visit troubled city areas bringing toys, books and ideas to help improve children's lives.

August 12, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Styrofoam cups, bent cans and wrappers litter the playground at the corner of Mount and Laurens streets in Sandtown-Winchester. On the large swing set, only one baby swing is intact. Two swings are tied together; the rest are missing or broken.

But steps away, on a narrow concrete courtyard, 20 kids are twirling in Hula-Hoops, playing circle games and reading books. In an hour, they'll be begging the teen-agers in white T-shirts who brought the toys and fun ideas not to leave.

The teen-agers -- "youth ambassadors" for Baltimore's Safe and Sound Campaign -- call this a "virtual playground," with fun, energy and a few simple toys as the only equipment.

The "playground" is one tool in an ambitious, sometimes amorphous campaign to improve life for Baltimore's children. Most summer weekdays, several teams of young people take to the streets, looking for children in need of something to do.

"We're really just trying to regenerate some hope in communities," said Cara Fuller, who directs the youth ambassador program for Safe and Sound. "Hopelessness can be one of the greatest enemies."

The Safe and Sound campaign started six years ago, when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation selected Baltimore as one of five cities for its Urban Health Initiative, a 10-year project to improve the health and safety of children. Nonprofit organizations in the cities were to raise money, evaluate the well-being of children and marshal disparate groups, from schools to doctors to families, to improve conditions.

The campaign in Baltimore has raised $60 million to spend on projects such as improving after-school programs and teaching child-rearing skills. The campaign also seeks to encourage the community to take better care of kids.

To that end, the idea of creating spontaneous playgrounds was born.

Last summer, a handful of teens visited neighborhoods around the city. This year, the effort has grown larger and more organized. The youths, who are paid a small stipend, scout out where they will go, looking for as many children in one place as possible. They go out with police detectives beforehand to make sure it's safe to show up to play.

On a typical day, the Sandtown-Winchester courtyard, near the Gilmor Homes housing project, is not a welcoming place for children. Benches and stoops are usually populated by adults who smoke, drink and make illicit deals, said Victoria Guy, 32, who watched as five of her children played with the Safe and Sound team.

"People will be bullying each other," said Jarteka Gibson, a willowy 12-year-old who came out to spin a hula-hoop.

There is a pool next to the playground, but that's as much a magnet for trouble as it is a place for fun, Guy said. The pool staff can't always control fights that break out, she said.

As for some of the children's parents, "you don't see them, and you won't see them," she said. "Truthfully, a lot of these kids are raising themselves."

That afternoon, the Safe and Sound teens were cautioning a 7-year-old girl not to run while holding her 2-year-old sister, who had fallen asleep in the girl's arms. The 7-year-old then draped the baby over their 6-year-old brother's lap, while he was watching a game. Their parents were nowhere in sight.

Several miles north, another Safe and Sound group had started a game of "Duck, Duck, Goose" in a courtyard near Pall Mall Road and Shirley Avenue. As other children drew with chalk or read books, the teen-agers distributed literature describing their campaign.

Dionna Newsome, 6, said she was glad the group had come. "I like it better when they're here, 'cause it's fun," she said.

After the game, Deray McKesson, 17, a youth ambassador who will be a senior at Catonsville High School, gathered Dionna and a few other children to read a story. Without Safe and Sound, he said, "they wouldn't have all these toys and all this fun. It's gratifying to think you're part of it."

But whether there is lasting change for the kids in the neighborhoods Safe and Sound visits is an unanswered question.

The teen-agers encourage adults to keep up the fun after they are gone.

Robert Ayasse, a lecturer at University of California, Berkeley School of Social Welfare who has evaluated after-school programs in communities with social problems, doubts such progress would last. "If they weren't doing it before, it's highly unlikely they're going to do it afterward," Ayasse said. "It takes a lot to create change in people's behavior. It's not something I think you can do on a casual basis."

In Sandtown-Winchester, Guy had the same reaction. While thankful for the youths' attention to the children, she doubted it would change things. "I don't know. Depends on if they come around more," she said.

Fuller, the ambassador program director, said the groups are planning more return visits, letting neighbors know when they will be coming. After seeing the state of the Mount Street playground, the Safe and Sound team committed to return today to clean it up.

They say they also direct parents and children to permanent nearby resources, such as after-school programs and community centers.

But playground visits will stop at the end of this month, when the 45 ambassadors and six college-age interns return to school. Safe and Sound hopes to hold a block party to mark the end of the season.

At the Sandtown "playground" last week, the young people began to pack up supplies about 4:30 p.m. Some of the children drifted away. But a few stayed behind, trying to hold on to their new friends.

"Call your boss and tell 'em you can't come back," Shakiara Holley, 10, said as she clung to Safe and Sound intern Monica Brooks, 20. "And him?" Shakiara said, looking at intern Brandon Terry. "He's just a Safe and Sound clown."

Brittany Newman, 4, sucked on a pacifier and wouldn't let go of a Winnie the Pooh book Terry was holding. After some cajoling from Terry, she gave it up and toddled toward the dilapidated swing set.

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