Annette March-Grier, president of Roberta's House,… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
The emotional component of the crises that occur in the city all too often winds up in a North Avenue grief counseling room. This destination for some needed healing is little known in the world of Baltimore philanthropic circles. But that will be changing.
I spent time this week at Roberta's House, a comfort zone located in the heart of the neighborhoods where these sadnesses often begin. I spoke with Annette March-Grier, who named her project after her late mother, Roberta March, who was known as a loving matriarch among Baltimore's African-American morticians.
March-Grier told me stories of the children, parents and grandparents who find their way to her door — the children who watched a father shot to death; the grandparents who raised a child, only to see their grandbaby die of a crime or disease; the multiple deaths, spanning generations, that will curse a family in a brief period.
"People are living day to day, having crisis after crisis," March-Grier said.
I mentioned a few news stories, mainly involving children, that have caused many Baltimoreans shed a tear. In so many of these cases, March-Grier said, she and her staff, many of whom are social workers who donate their time to this nonprofit, had counseled these families.
The March family lived for decades at 928 E. North Ave. The first floor of this rowhouse at the corner of Cecil Avenue was the funeral chapel. The family founded the business in 1957. Between 1962 and 1978, some 1,000 funerals a year were handled through that North Avenue rowhouse.
"I was a child then, but I would sit at the top of the stairs and listen to my mother and how she would treat her families," March-Grier said. "She was the most tender person in the world. Her ability to deal with a grieving family, especially when a young child had died, was something I will never forget."
March-Grier went on to become a nurse and treat patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the institution not far from her family's funeral business. She recalled that her late father, William C. March, told his children he had a place for them if they ever wanted to come back and join the family in mortuary work. She did, but she chose a slightly different direction.
"Baltimore lacks the resources to address the emotional damage of unresolved grief," she said. "Unfortunately, children who have lost loved ones to homicide and suffered the trauma of an unexpected death go unnoticed. Only when they became disruptive in school or begin to show symptoms similar to attention-deficit disorder do we begin to notice their situation."
In the next few weeks, that original rowhouse at North and Cecil will be demolished, along with several others. A new $3 million Roberta's House will rise so that this organization will have an enlarged home. (Roberta's House is now housed in a small shopping center at North and Broadway. It opened in 2007.)
"There is a lot of hurt in our children," March-Grier said. "Their stories are unbelievable. And I have discovered that people can carry grief for a lifetime."
She said she has tapped philanthropies to assist her — the Weinberg and Blaustein foundations, the New York Life Foundation and the Moyer Foundation, founded by former Orioles pitcher Jamie Moyer.
She would like to make others aware of this need.
"Baltimore is a violent city. Our communities have little or no support to overcome their grief in a healthy and safe way. It is no secret that grief has become a public health problem," she said.
She cited what she thinks are the results of unaddressed grief — more violence, failure in school, inappropriate behavior, substance abuse and more grief.
"Unresolved grief is causing children, teens and adults to be severely wounded, emotionally and spiritually," she said.