Village Learning Place

A community garden is open during library hours at The Village Learning Place at 2521 St. Paul St., with several benches, a raised herb bed with rosemary and parsley, and a youth garden along the south wall. The Dirt Diggers program teaches kids about plants, food and life cycles. (Photo by Karen Jackson / June 24, 2011)

2004 was a bad year for the Village Learning Place.

With state and city funding and private grants dwindling, the community-run library and activities center in Charles Village laid off four of 15 employees and announced "a period of restructuring and reorganization," while Eric Miller resigned as director, saying his salary would be better used for operational costs.

""I guess he took one for the team," said Liesje Gantert, who succeeded Miller as director.

2005 wasn't much better, as then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich left the Village Learning Place, known as the VLP, out of the proposed state budget entirely.

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Seven years later, the library, at 2521 St. Paul St., is a picture of health, thanks partly to two grants of $1 million each from the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program since 2007.

The VLP library is expanding not ony its all-free community services, but also its physical campus.

In addition to the 4,500-square-foot, Victorian-style building that the VLP has called home since it opened as a privately run library in 2000, it plans to open four new classrooms, a conference room, a kitchen and staff offices, including Gantert's, on the second floor of a 6,000-square-foot office building across the street at 2510 St. Paul St.

The full kitchen will be used educationally for children in the VLP's after-school program, as well as for the staff, which never has had a kitchen, said Kate Maskarinec, volunteer and community relations coordinator.

The VLP will also gain an alarm system for the new location and wireless Internet access for both buildings.

"Wi-fi is on the way," Maskarinec said.

The board of directors has spent an estimated $240,000 in renovation costs, said Darran White Tilghman, a former part-time after-school teacher turned full-time development coordinator.

A grand opening is planned for sometime in August, she said. And it can't come soon enough.

"We're bursting at the seams," she said.

Serving the community

The VLP specializes in after-school tutoring and educational activities for 80 children, mostly from Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School, where most students qualify for a federally funded free lunch program.

The library has also increased its full-time staff from eight to 24, and offers a full range of activities like field trips and educational activities, which follow the standard state curriculum — but are a lot more fun.

For example, Tilghman said, to teach after-school students about physics, "They build rockets."

Many staff members are full-time after-school teachers, who visit Margaret Brent frequently during the school day, in an effort to reach out to the school community and its parents.

And the VLP is starting projects ranging from a community garden for middle schoolers to a Trivial Pursuit-type program presented by "The Adultescents," aimed at the area's growing number of young professionals. It's one of a number of classes and get-togethers for adults and seniors, from Baltimore History Evenings to GED classes and a cultural program called 2nd Wednesdays at the VLP.

The library is also making plans to expand its Let's Invest in Neighborhood Kids (LINK) Initiative, which offers after-school and summer academic enrichment programs for kids from kindergarten through eighth grade. In the school year, kids at Margaret Brent are encouraged to register for the LINK summer program, whose curriculum was written with the help of students in Johns Hopkins University's Center For Social Concern.