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The Baltimore Sun

Village Learning Place lets the good times roll

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.

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.

"The point is for us to be physically a gathering place for this community," Tilghman said.

The VLP also has a strong online presence with a web site, http://www.villagelearningplace.org, and open-source, online catalog.

'We win a lot of grants'

The former longtime Baltimore City public library branch was born from adversity. Communty protests and a mock funeral when the city closed it in 1997 led the city to give it to the neighborhood to run.

But the library only hit its financial stride when Tilghman, who came in 2006, at the tail end of what she calls "the hard times," wrote the original grant proposal that netted the VLP its first $1 million from Congress' 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant program.

"It was my first grant proposal," said Tilghman, 32, of Charles Village.

The grant came at a time when the after-school program was thin on educational programming, and more useful as "a safe place for kids," while their parents were at work, Tilghman said.

"The organization was ready to go to the next level," Tilghman said.The grants "really changed what we were doing."

Now finishing its 10th fiscal year June 30, the library lives on a grants from private donors, governments and foundations. Other grants have included $100,000 from the Family League of Baltimore and $1,000 from the United Way "Youth Venture" program grant for a middle school community garden.

"We win lots of grants," Tilghman said.

And the library has the services of a VISTA volunteer and work-study college students, most of them from Johns Hopkins University.

Although the VLP has expanded its programs, it has not strayed too far from its original mission as a free library. It is still the main draw, with 20,000 books on its shelves, a computer lab and play area (with a pup tent!) in the basement, and a garden, where the public can pick herbs and other plants to take home.

During a tour, Tilghman plucked a piece of mint that she planted in 2007.

"This is where all our good mojitos will come from," she said.

Fiscally responsible

Despite a $1.2 million budget, the VLP is not sitting pretty on a pile of money, especially at a library that's free, except for rented space to community groups, and where there's no pressure to return books on time.

"Our library doesn't even have fines," Maskarinec said.

"We are an incredibly fiscally responsible organization, especially after the hard times," Tilghman said.

And she noted that the VP has 6,000 library card holders.

"In hard times, public libraries get used," she said. "We have never seen as much use of our computers as we have in the past year," especially by job seekers.

The impact of the money was most readily apparent in introductions of new staff members during the tour. Puttering in the garden June 22 was a new LINK summer enrichment teacher, Jillian Zarra, 24, of Charles Villlage, who works as a special education teacher at Hampden Elementary/Middle during the school year.

Passing by in the basement was Helen Starkweather, who was hired last November for a new position, as director of organizational performance. Then there's Maskarinec, 24, who came about four months ago.

But the value of the money was apparent at a bank of three computers, all filled. Boxer Darrell Martin, 28, was on the Internet. Bernard Brown, 60, was checking his email. Neither have Internet access at home.

And the third was incoming Margaret Brent third grader Austin Romano, there with his stepfather, Timothy Roberts. Austin, 7, was playing a video game called "Phineas and Ferb Gadget Golf Speed Challenge."

"Yay, I won," Austin yelled.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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