It is a scant fifteen minute drive from the leafy suburbs, where single homes on sizable lots are hidden by budding trees and flowering shrubs and the streets are empty, to North Carey Street in the heart of the Sandtown-Winchester community, the epicenter of the 2015 uprising following the death of Freddie Gray.
Here house after house is boarded up, sidewalks are cracked and the streets teem with people, many of whom are unemployed. There is little green anywhere, except for a small patch of grass next to a skimpily endowed playground directly across from the block of buildings that houses the Penn North organization, known for the past twenty-four years as the Maryland Community Health Initiatives.
Penn North runs an innovative addiction recovery center, a 200 bed supportive housing program for single clients in recovery, a community resource center that provides wrap-around services needed by clients seeking recovery to help them re-enter society as productive members, and the newest addition to their offerings, a two-unit space for mothers in recovery and their children currently housing twelve women and sixteen children.
Their Kids Safe Zone program, a recipient of a BWGC grant for the 2016/17 cycle, started two years ago in response to the uprising, initially housing fifty children in an empty Laundromat facility. It has since moved into an appropriate building adjoining the Penn North housing units; the new site fortuitously became available nine months into the life of the program.
The funding to take over the lease and pay the first few months rent came from private donors (among them the singer and song-writer Alicia Keys) and a grant from the Governor’s Office for Children. Since then, the program has attracted a number of donors, the most generous, consistent and mysterious one an anonymous donor from Texas, who heard about the program on television and e-mailed the director that a higher power told him to support it!
The Center, a safe place for approximately one hundred neighborhood children ages five to seventeen, is open from 2pm to 8pm on schooldays and all day on non-school days. During the summer, a day camp for 150 children spills out into the open space across the street.
At a recent visit, the brightly painted rooms pulsed with controlled energy, reflective of the dynamic, seemingly tireless and ubiquitous Executive Director, Erica Olsen-Buck, who for the past year has run the program with the help of one assistant and five other employees. The children were enthusiastically participating in their activities,bright-eyed and engaging. On offer are arts programs, provided by “Art with a Heart”; two computer labs, where every child, even the youngest, learns coding; licensed counseling sponsored by Catholic Charities; a study lab and homework assistance; Xbox gaming systems; and flat screen TVs. A daily, fifty-minute yoga meditation period provides an outlet for children to channel their energy and emotions. There are organized sport teams and other activities to supplement the summer program, such as a drum camp.
The center attracts a wide range of volunteers, including professionals, who come to talk to the children about their work or talent, barbers who offer haircuts, manicurists, and chaperones for field trips to nearby attractions, like the zoo or the Inner Harbor.
Every child also is assigned a carefully vetted mentor who meets with the child at the center to provide a further level of attention and stability. The mentors read to and with the children, play games with them and provide them with a personal relationship that is theirs alone.
Our money could not have gone to a more deserving program and is set to help grow an organization that is meeting a distressed community’s most pressing needs at every level.