Mary Wolf was jogging around her adopted hometown of Annapolis when she turned a corner and discovered Clay Street, a community long blighted by poverty and crime, just steps from the State House and downtown Annapolis' restaurants and tourist attractions.
The former television producer, who had run a successful computer literacy center in Washington, saw a need and wanted to open a center there in Annapolis. She didn't get much of a response.
"People said, 'This will never work. Things never last on Clay Street.' Everyone" said it, Wolf said Monday.
She's proven everyone wrong.
On Monday, Wolf celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Clay Street Computer Learning Center, which she founded in the summer of 1999 with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Officials from Microsoft and the state Department of Education, along with Rep. John Sarbanes, gathered inside the small storefront computer lab, which is equipped with little more than a handful of computers and flat-screen monitors and the latest in Microsoft technology.
The center has touched both the young and old, serving as an after-school program and summer camp for youths and a portal of free Internet access for adults to gain basic computer skills, such as resume writing. "This is not about me," said Wolf, a former producer for NBC Nightly News. "This community and every community like this deserves a free computer center. My personal satisfaction comes from my relationships with the children and the people that benefit from the lab."
Timothy Boston, 22, who grew up in nearby College Creek Terrace, one of Annapolis' public housing communities, was among those who gathered for the celebration. On his second day of ninth grade in 2000, Boston walked by and saw the computers as the door to the center swung open.
Boston, who recently earned a bachelor's degree in communications from Bowie State University, worked summers at the lab.
"This place was like my second home," said Boston, who is looking for a position in public relations. "I learned a lot of life skills."
Since 2001, Microsoft has donated about $145,000 in cash to the center and $6,000 in software, said Ginny Terzano, a spokeswoman for Microsoft. The center has also received grants from the city of Annapolis, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the Community Foundation of Anne Arundel County and Kiwanis Club of Annapolis. Comcast donates high-speed Internet access.
"I see an opportunity," said Fred Humphries, the managing director for federal government affairs for Microsoft, who came from Washington to attend the event. "In life, that's what it's all about. And at Microsoft, we believe technology is the great equalizer."
Miya Coates, 8, has attended the lab since last year, she said, hanging out with her friends and learning computer skills.
"I learned about black history," said Miya, a third-grader. "We learned about Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, a whole bunch."
Sarbanes presented Wolf and Mark Thomas, the lab's program director for the past four years, with certificates of achievement.
"This kind of story, this is the most important story," Sarbanes told the crowd. "The scale is small but the impact of what happens here is amazing."
The children also get experience beyond the center. Thomas, who previously worked with the city's public housing authority, has taken the children on field trips to Washington and the Eastern Shore.
"We try to expose them to all different things and let them see there's a world outside of here," said Thomas. "And I'm the only father figure a lot of these kids get to see."