Center for at-risk youths housed in Brooklyn landmark

Director of Chesapeake Center for Youth Development believes in stability, has been on the job for several decades

  • Ivan Leshinsky, executive director of the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development, stands outside the center. The building, in the Brooklyn neighborhood, was constructed in 1887 as a church.
Ivan Leshinsky, executive director of the Chesapeake Center… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
March 07, 2014|Jacques Kelly

I crossed the Patapsco River and arrived in Brooklyn in search of the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development. It was not hard to spot in this neighborhood in the southern section of the city, not too far from the Anne Arundel County line.

The Chesapeake Center is housed in an old Brooklyn landmark, the quaint-looking former Crisp Presbyterian Church, on Patapsco Avenue at Third Street. It sits atop a hill, and its belfry is the highest point around. As I arrived from downtown Baltimore, the little chapel seemed a remnant of the one-time village that was Brooklyn before all the industry arrived long before the two world wars.

Since I last visited the center more than 20 years ago, it has expanded with a classroom wing. The church's sanctuary is now renovated as a compact gym.

I found its director, Ivan Leshinsky, 67, in an office as pleasantly cluttered as it was decades ago. He's one of those calm, keen-sighted people whose determination to help Baltimore never falters. We discussed the center's 40 years of work.

Leshinsky outlined his mission: "A grass-roots organization run by a small but dedicated group of staff and volunteers that has been quietly yet effectively turning around the lives of hundreds of youth-at-risk for the past four decades."

I looked around and thought about how this is what he and his people were doing years ago. And he's still at it.

"Stability has its benefits," Leshinsky told me. "A little stability can make a difference in all the economic and social upheaval in Baltimore."

He's a Baltimore believer who lives not far away, on Hollins Street in Southwest Baltimore, another neighborhood that seems to change around every corner.

"I think of Baltimore as a gigantic checkerboard," Leshinsky said. "Nobody lives more than one or two spaces away from a community that is struggling with crime, drugs and health issues."

After 40 years, the Chesapeake Center remains true to its mission — to help children and young adults learn and gain stability in their often fractured lives. In addition to activities for at-risk youths and neighborhood-based programs, he also runs what he describes as "an alternative school for court-involved youth."

Through fundraising, his little academy acquired a secure physical plant — the classrooms, the computer lab, a gym — in a neighborhood setting on a bus line. He also has teachers and counselors. There are mirrors in the corridor so students can check themselves out to ensure a neat appearance.

"We are small on purpose, and a kid here cannot get lost in the crowd," he said.

But this year has not been a particularly good time for Leshinsky, who reminds me of a kindly school principal who wants nothing more than to have his students succeed and become productive citizens.

"Most troubling to me is the Chesapeake Center's alternative school," he said. "We don't have enough students. We are severely under-enrolled, and the budget has seen dramatic fluctuations over time. We lost $1 million in funding in the past year."

In short, he needs a total of 15 to 20 students in the classrooms.

"It is incomprehensible to me how we could be so under-enrolled," he said as he walked through school rooms that had no students but were nevertheless staffed with teachers at their desks.

I asked if transportation might be an issue, that Brooklyn might be remote.

"We'll pick them up at their homes," he said.

He said he had a good working relationship with former city schools chief Andrés Alonso, who resigned last year. A new city schools CEO, Gregory Thornton, will take over in the summer. Leshinsky has also worked with a changing landscape at the state's Department of Juvenile Services. So in the months ahead, Leshinsky vows, he, his board and staff will begin "new strategic planning process."

"I like to be a part of things that are evolving," he said.

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