Where at-risk boys find home, direction

Hattie's: One of the state's most recognized group homes started less than 10 years ago in a woman's home.

March 05, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

When Hattie Washington met Wayne Saunders, the 14-year-old boy carried just a green garbage bag containing nearly every stitch of his belongings - a couple shirts, a few pairs of jeans - and had no place to sleep that night.

Washington was an assistant superintendent of Baltimore schools and director of an intervention center for unruly students. Wayne, who was a foster child under his grandmother's care, had been kicked out that morning by her, then got into trouble at school and was banished to Washington's program.

"When I first met him, he had his hat on backwards. I told him to turn it around, pull his pants up right and stop slouching in my chair," Washington recalled from that 1995 meeting. "He did three out of three things I asked, and I figured he couldn't be that bad a kid."

That brief encounter would change both their lives. Feeling pity, Washington offered him her home "just for a few nights." A year later, a few nights had turned into long-term living quarters for Wayne and seven other boys like him.

Before long, the divorced mother of two adult daughters made her efforts official by starting a group home. Today, Aunt Hattie's Place has more than two dozen employees, is home for 18 boys and is considered one of Maryland's best-run group homes.

"There are a lot of good programs out there, and there are a lot of programs I wish weren't out there, and there are a few exemplary programs," said Jim McComb, executive director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth. "You can certainly count Aunt Hattie's Place as one of those exemplary programs."

The state Social Services Administration, which regulates foster homes, said that Aunt Hattie's Place - with a main location in West Baltimore and another site in Randallstown - has been in good standing every year of its existence.

And at the heart of Aunt Hattie's Place remains its founder, a successful 57-year-old woman who seven years ago had her closest friends wondering what she was doing taking in troubled inner-city kids to her middle-class Randallstown home.

At Aunt Hattie's Place are students who were on track to dropping out but are now strong candidates for high school graduation.

Boys who had no structure in their lives but now do homework, eat dinner and brush their teeth on a set schedule.

Youngsters with no discipline who now greet strangers with a firm handshake, unflinching eye contact and a kind word.

Every part of the program at Aunt Hattie's Place, from scheduled chores to mandatory performing arts training, fits its motto: "Creating winners; not just picking winners!"

"I am teaching these boys to be men because this society isn't fair to black males," Washington said. "They are always going to have to be that much better than the next person. So I teach them that first impressions mean so much."

Washington, who now lives in Montgomery County, is a professor of special education at Coppin State College and former vice president at the school. She began her career as a public school teacher and later became an administrator in Baltimore before moving to the collegiate level.

She mixes at exclusive events and counts business owners, politicians and educators among her friends. When invited to an event - an Orioles baseball game or a concert at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall - she might ask for extra tickets for her foster sons and staff.

Washington works from a small office, not more than eight feet wide, on the Coppin campus. The gentle lady with a wide smile seems small in her reclining chair against all the books and pictures that fill her walls.

She is quick-witted and tries to anticipate questions. But when asked about the motivation behind the group home, Washington folds her arms across her chest and measures her words. She talks about growing up in a crowded home, her humbling start in college and her career teaching special education students, who in her opinion often get overlooked.

One of 15 children

Washington was born in Norfolk, Va., and grew up in the era of segregation, a middle child of 15. Her mother died when Washington was 2, leaving behind a husband and four children.

Washington's father, who owned a small lumber company, married a woman who had six children from a previous marriage, and the family moved to tiny Meherrin, Va., where the couple had five more children.

After finishing high school with honors, Washington set her sights on college. One fall morning in 1964, she walked onto the campus of Norfolk State University, found an information desk and asked the receptionist for help finding her homeroom.

There was one problem: Washington hadn't applied for admission to the school, and no one at the university had ever heard of her.

"I didn't know that I was supposed to apply," Washington recalled. "Nobody in my family had ever gone to college; I didn't know anything about going from high school to college. I just knew I was going to college."

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