Kids building on their dreams to create Waverly youth center


Leah Cronin repeatedly hacked at a partially destroyed foyer wall with a crowbar, causing plaster and wood to crash to the floor. With a swift yank of the tool, she was able to leverage enough power to separate a wooden panel from the wall, exposing the skeletal structure of the home.

Cronin and a team of 30 fellow volunteers spent yesterday ripping out fixtures, removing ceilings, exposing walls and sweeping out debris from an old three-story Waverly house they hope to transform into a youth center.

"It's really exhilarating," said Cronin, a student at Villa Julie College who volunteered after being asked by a teacher affiliated with the project.

"You can take out all of your aggression on the wall. There is a sense of accomplishment when it all comes down."

Since its formation at the Stadium School in 2001, the Youth Dreamers, a group of Baltimore city public school students, has worked to open a center where kids can receive tutoring and take classes ranging from cooking to pottery.

Initially, some residents on Carswell Street opposed the center, fearing that neighborhood property values would decline and that elderly residents would be bothered.

Michelle Gee, a five-year resident who lives across from the planned center, said her only concern is parking on the crowded, narrow street.

"They are doing something positive for the children," Gee said. "I'm excited about seeing how it will be."

Victoria Snyder, who has lived on Carswell Street for 16 years, said she welcomes the changes to the boarded-up, mustard-colored building.

"It was empty for a long time," Snyder said from the porch of her home. "No one has been in that house for 15, 16 years or more. ... I have no problem with it. The house is sitting there doing nothing. It's a positive thing."

Cierra Cary, a 16-year-old junior at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, has been with Youth Dreamers from the start.

"It makes me feel happy we survived," Cierra said. "A lot of people weren't with us."

Cierra envisions the center as a safe place for kids. A series of shootings in the area was the motivation to create the group.

"It will be free of violence and drugs," Cierra said.

The group caught a break when a United Methodist church agreed to sell the group its former parsonage -- a 2,040-square-foot house -- in the 1400 block of Carswell St. for $12,500.

After receiving approval a year ago from the zoning board to proceed with the renovation, the Youth Dreamers have spent their time meeting with residents, working with a volunteer architect on designs for the center and coming up with fundraising projects.

Carol Krawczyk taught art at the Stadium School last year and then left to pursue a master's degree in community art at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She was so impressed with the Youth Dreamers' determination that she has continued to donate her spare time to the youth center project.

"I wanted to be here for the beginning," said Krawczyk, who suffered the first injury of the day -- a splinter. "I'm so thankful I could help out."

Jenny Hope, a Youth Dreamers board member and a former executive director for Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity, recruited her 17-year-old daughter, Maggie, and a few of her former colleagues to help out yesterday.

"This is definitely not what she does on Sundays. ... She's usually watching MTV," Hope said of her daughter with a laugh. "This is amazing."

Karima Gibson, a math teacher at the Stadium School, gave up a day of watching the Ravens and cooking to dispose of trash and shovel debris.

"It's a lot of work, but I think it will be wonderful," Gibson said.

The group worked all day to strip the house to its skeleton so that a contractor can eventually come in and rebuild the inside.

"We would really like to have [the center] done by June," said Kristina Berdan, who teaches the community action class at the Stadium School that spawned the Youth Dreamers.

Berdan said the group is looking for a contractor who will work pro bono to complete the remaining work.

The Youth Dreamers' architect estimates the entire project will cost $350,000. The group has raised more than $130,000, Berdan said.

While adult volunteers worked in the house, the Youth Dreamers -- who couldn't work inside because they are minors -- prepared lunch and worked on art projects to be used as gifts for the volunteers and decorations for the finished center.

Regene White, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at the Stadium School, appreciated the volunteers' efforts.

"They are helpful and really are committed," she said. "This is what we need to help renovate our house."

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