Fire halts services needed by teens

Family center fire cuts services to teen parents

Center: Park Heights blaze most likely set by neighborhood children, investigators say.

April 19, 2005|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

As Linda Harvey surveyed damage at the Park Heights Family Support Center in Baltimore yesterday, she couldn't help but linger near the playground. All that's left of the slides and ladders - the starting point of a fire that erupted Sunday - are ankle-high blobs of plastic and a metal frame.

"I can show you what it used to look like," said Harvey, the director of the center who spent most of yesterday reassuring the teenage parents who come with their babies that the facility will reopen.

When, she can't say.

Police and fire officials are investigating the cause of the fire, which burned the playground as well as most of one side of the building in which the center is housed. The building, in the 4200 block of Pimlico Road, is owned by the Church of the Holy Nativity and is leased for $600 a month.

Harvey said fire officials told her that the fire most likely was set by neighborhood children who use the playground in the evenings and on weekends. Harvey said the playground had been vandalized in the past but that the fire was the most devastating event.

"That's the saddest part, that neighborhood children might have started the fire," said Michelle Hanna, the center's child development specialist. "They don't know how many families they have hurt."

Insurance adjusters for the church and for Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland, the umbrella nonprofit organization that runs the center, estimated damage at $125,000. Cleanup could take as long as three months, Harvey said.

The director and her staff worry that if they don't find a place where they can relocate temporarily, their young clients will abandon General Educational Development certificate, job training, and parenthood classes. Some of the teens are required by courts to attend the classes. Others come voluntarily because they receive food, training and baby supplies.

"If we don't reopen, some of our parents will get lost," Harvey said. "It's imperative that we find a place to maintain our program."

It could be difficult to find a space large enough to house the center, which requires room for a preschool and nursery. The house on Pimlico Road is about 4,000 square feet and has a kitchen as well as living and dining rooms.

Upstairs, there is space for administrative offices and classrooms where dozens of teen parents take high school classes and search the Internet for jobs listings.

An old elementary school nearby could provide temporary shelter, Harvey said, but it was unclear yesterday whether that plan would work.

In the meantime, the center will remain closed, and for some teens that could mean a return to old habits.

Nichole George, 17, said she woke up early yesterday so she could go to classes at the center only to find out that it was closed.

George said she wasn't ready to study for her GED certificate when she started going to the center six months ago, shortly after her son, Tyriiqe, was born.

"I was too tired," she said. "I was still trying to get used to being a mother. Now I'm ready. A lot of women and children get a lot of benefits there."

The Park Heights Family Support Center has a good reputation, Harvey said, and when the fire broke out about 8 p.m. Sunday, at least four people called 911. One woman panicked when she couldn't reach emergency dispatch.

"We had a grandmother run in her bare feet to the fire station to try to get some help," Harvey said.

Eventually, the program will move to a community center that is to be built near Park Heights Avenue and Cold Spring Lane, Harvey said. The two groups trying to build the center need $500,000 before they can start construction, she said.

"Wherever we go," Harvey said, "we need to stay in the community."

Sun staff writer Ryan Davis contributed to this article.

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