Some days it's hard for Steve Vassor, the recently hired executive director of the Hampden Family Center, to fully comprehend how a young black man came to run a small, scrappy nonprofit in a virtually all-white neighborhood in Baltimore.
"Of all the places I could have wound up, here I am," said Vassor, acknowledging Hampden's reputation as an insular community where blacks are unwelcome.
Vassor laughs when he recalls one of his first strolls down Hampden's main commercial district, The Avenue, when a dog nipped him on the behind. Before Vassor could speak - he was not harmed - the pooch's owner, who was white, apologized and offered to replace Vassor's torn jacket and make a donation to the family center.
Hampden has changed, but Vassor says there is more to be done to revitalize the community, and he wants the family center to take a more active role in that effort.
"We're turning a corner, the city is turning a corner, but we're not done yet," said Vassor, who at 34 has held a number of positions with local nonprofits, including the YMCA of Central Maryland and the Boys and Girls Club.
When Vassor met with a reporter earlier this month, he was writing 15 different grants in search of money to fund a host of initiatives, including a youth radio program aimed at teenagers, and expanded social activities for adults and the elderly. He wants to work with a local community college to offer painting, poetry and General Educational Development classes, and with Meals on Wheels to make sure seniors are getting adequate nutrition and social interaction.
"There's bigger and better coming, there really is," said Vassor of the family center, which was co-founded in 1995 by the Hampden Community Council, Hampden Merchants Association, Hampden Midtown Kiwanis Club and Junior League of Baltimore. The center has an annual budget of about $300,000 and serves between 150 and 200 people a week.
Vassor's enthusiasm is one of the main reasons Hampden Family Center board members hired him in December to head up the organization, said board President Rachel M. Mygatt. She said the board was especially eager to hire someone who would re-energize the center, which has struggled in recent years due to a lack of strong executive leadership and waning support from residents who didn't feel that programs offered there catered to them.
There have also been rumors that the center was going to move out of the neighborhood or that it was going to take "Hampden" out of its name, according to community members. Although the gossip turned out to be just that, it served to further distance a core group of longtime Hampden residents.
Even recently arrived residents - young professionals and artists who are snapping up rowhouses along historically blue-collar streets - have expressed disappointment. Those who have tried to volunteer at the center say staff members never got back to them or lost touch after a few months.
Mygatt explained that there was a period a few years back when the center didn't have an executive director and some projects fizzled, but added that she is confident Vassor can make amends.
"Steve's energy really sticks out, as well as his drive and presentation" Mygatt said. "He really engages people. We felt that we needed someone who was like that as we move forward."
Vassor already has a vision. He said he wants to add programs, such as the youth radio project, that will engage teenagers and young adults. He said he has spoken with youths who said they wanted more social outlets. Vassor said a large number of high-school-aged youths in Hampden don't attend school. Instead, they spend their days on The Avenue.
A recent program - It's a Teen Dream - succeeded in engaging several dozen youths in volunteer projects, including hosting a Halloween dance and sending Valentine's Day cards to seniors. The program received funding from Episcopal Community Services of Maryland, which is working with Vassor to find new funding sources so he can continue the program.
"I want to get these kids engaged, quick, fast and in a hurry," said Vassor, a city resident who is the father of two girls, ages 8 and 5.
Vassor knows the importance of intervention. He himself got into some trouble when he was growing up in Washington. Later, his family moved to Columbia in Howard County. Vassor said his life might have been very different had it not been for a social worker and an uncle who encouraged him when he was 13 to do more than act destructively.
"I don't like to talk about it, but I will say that those experiences changed my life," he said. "From that point forward I decided I was going to be that person who worked with young people."
Genny Dill, the new president of the Hampden Community Council, said she and other residents are encouraged by what they have seen of Vassor so far.
"Those kids who aren't in trouble now are on their way there, and we need to intervene," Dill said. "I hope that Steve can spearhead these programs. I see this moving in the right direction. Check back with us in a year."