In the spirit of the season

A bleak street near the old American Brewery receives the joy of Christmas in toys delivered to needy children

Sun Follow-up

December 20, 2006|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN REPORTER

There were no fancy decorations, no carolers, no tree.

But the week before Christmas, there was a Santa Claus, who handed out toys out of the back of a black sport utility vehicle. And there was a pair of helpers - a working-class couple who run a small, mom-and-pop nonprofit to help inner-city kids.

Together, they brought the spirit of the season and some surprising, if fleeting, moments of joy to a bleak street near the vacant American Brewery building in East Baltimore, one of the most distressed areas of the city.

Rodney Friend, a hotel bartender, and Glorietta Friend, a medical secretary, run their tiny Back Court Foundation to distribute books and school supplies, as well as toys, to needy children.

Theirs was not the only holiday event to help families in the community, where nearly half the people live in poverty; one woman who brought her daughter to the toy giveaway in the 1700 block of N. Port St. at dusk Monday mentioned a nearby church that was distributing gift baskets this week.

But the unpretentious and unexpected nature of their effort, and the fact that it came from outside the community, made it especially appreciated.

Childhood sweethearts who grew up in East Baltimore about 12 blocks south of the brewery on North Gay Street, near where East North Avenue dead-ends at the Baltimore Cemetery, the Friends were unfamiliar with the area until they drove through it after a series of newspaper articles in The Sun this year.

"It was very disheartening," Rodney Friend said.

The couple live in Hamilton in Northeast Baltimore with their 4-year-old son. Three years ago, they started the Back Court Foundation - a reference to basketball, a city game Rodney Friend loved as a child - as a way to improve the lives of city kids. They say they operate on about $1,500 a year.

On Monday evening, Tonja Lance followed her brother and daughter and niece to the street after hearing someone say they were giving away toys.

"I didn't even believe them. Nobody's giving away anything," said Lance, who works in a recycling plant and lives around the corner with her daughter and her father.

Her daughter, Tyra Robinson, 3, happily clutched a pair of "Cyclin' Sisters" on bicycles that she had been given while her cousin, Destiny Davis, 5, held a fairy princess.

"It's a nice idea," she said. "It shows them somebody cares."

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the largesse was the family of Margaret Morgan.

A 32-year resident of the street, Morgan lives with her cancer-stricken husband, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild in a small two-story rowhouse between a vacant, city-owned lot she fenced off as a side-yard play area and a string of vacant buildings. The Friends delivered bags of gift-wrapped packages for the kids and two other grandchildren who are frequent visitors, including toys and new hats and gloves, which filled the tiny living room.

"It means a lot to me," Morgan said of the gifts. "I can't afford anything this year, we're so far behind in the bills. I wasn't even going to put a tree up."

The arrival of the Friends and Santa - Dramus Stokes, Glorietta's brother, in a trademark red suit but minus the fluffy beard - was one of the few signs of the holiday on the block.

Morgan's house was one of only three on the block that had any sort of holiday decorations - two with a string of lights and ribbons in the front windows, one with a paper decoration on the door.

In a season of lights, the block was mostly dark as dusk turned to night. The block was lit by one dim streetlight at North Port and Lanvale streets; a streetlight in the middle of the block never came on. As in the rest of the area, about half the properties on the block are vacant and boarded.

Aside from the toy giveaway, the only activity on the street was a crew of workman renovating one of the block's 16 vacant properties, bought in June by a Washington investor.

Monday was not the first time Rodney and Glorietta Friend brought their Back Court Foundation to the area. In August, the couple made separate trips to the 1700 block of N. Port St. and the 1700 block of N. Bradford St. two blocks away, giving away books, school supplies and sports tickets. Instead of a Santa Claus, they were accompanied on that trip by a clown to entertain the children.

The couple decided to include the blocks on the handful of "Read to Achieve Fun Days" their foundation sponsors each year, mostly at recreation centers, after reading a two-part series in The Sun about the blocks around the long-vacant beer factory. The series, "A Neighborhood Abandoned," chronicled what was left of a neighborhood that had lost 60 percent of its population over three decades and that had been largely bypassed by renewal efforts.

This month, the foundation held a toy drive at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center downtown, which the Friends say garnered 75 toys and about $350.

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