Longtime recreation leader runs popular after-school program
'Mr. Lassie' helps with homework, sports and family issues
But the most dominant presence in this historic city building is the man they call Mr. Lassie.
"Most of these kids make a beeline to the center right after school," he said. "This is their haven, their lighthouse, their beacon. This is the oasis, where they get love, attention, encouragement and fun."
Belt, whose work attire typically includes a red community-center T-shirt, is usually in his office by early afternoon. He sits, surrounded by children's artwork, catching up on paperwork and organizing plans for what is often a 10-hour shift. He has been on the job for 32 years and "retirement is not an option," he said.
He is working with county schools and community groups to organize a parent workshop from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. next Friday at the center. "How to Get Involved with Your Child's Education" will feature several guest speakers, including Belt.
"A lot of people don't understand the importance of education," said Belt, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Morgan State University. "We will be stressing the need for early education and giving children the fundamentals so they can move on."
Diane Bragdon, principal at Wiley H. Bates Middle School, will be a presenter, along with the school's social worker and guidance counselor. They will demonstrate several helpful computer software programs that will allow parents to participate in their children's education, she said.
"This workshop will help a segment of our school community who are right there in the neighborhood that the center serves," Bragdon said. "We will offer practical ways for parents to get involved. This event will help generate parent understanding and involvement and maybe foster discussions around the family dinner table."
Bragdon said she and her faculty appreciate the support the Stanton Center offers students on a daily basis.
"They really try to do so much for our kids," she said. "We really appreciate the help, especially for kids who don't have a home computer. They can be just as competitive on their projects by working in the center's safe, nurturing environment."
Students can work at their own pace in the center's classroom, equipped with the latest technology, or at stations with individual tutors or in the computer room.
"Hi, Mr. Lassie," said Kamari Fowlkes, 11, usually one of the first after-school arrivals. "I need a little help with my homework. Can I use the computer room?"
The middle-school children usually drift in first for the daily After School Homework Club, which Belt organized decades ago for some kids, who are now parents of the current crop of attendees. Most, like Kamari, pop in the door with a greeting and a request.
Belt fist-bumps Trenton Cully, 9, who said, "I just have my spelling to do today. Then, can I play basketball?"
Hakeem Miller, 13, said he could do his homework on his own but prefers to come to the center.
"I like to come here and play basketball with my friends," he said. "Then, I stay off the streets."
By 4 p.m., what Belt calls a wave of kids — the youngest in kindergarten — hits the center on West Washington Street. Some walk, but school buses drop off most. Many will be there until about 7:30 p.m., and Belt is constantly among them, ready to handle all contingencies. He is supervising homework and kids on computers, organizing games and even filling lunch orders. He can manage quadratic equations, geometric drawings and sentence structure.
"We have lunches and drinks for them and a friendly face," he said. "You name it, and we are that for them."