For more than two decades, residents and activists in Severn have lobbied for a health clinic and community center for their neighborhood. During that period, some simply gave up as plans fell through time and time again.
Not Glenda Gathers. The local activist held out hope that the vision to make the center a focal point for the community would become a reality.
"I never once thought about walking away," said Gathers, looking at what is to be the future home of the center — a currently snow-covered field next to Van Bokkelen Elementary School.
The effort to build the center in an economically challenged area of Severn is now in its final stages. Organizers hope to break ground later this year, with an opening set for July 2015.
The $11.5 million project will include a People's Community Health Center on one side and a gym and community center on the other side, in walking distance from the elementary school and neighborhoods that residents and officials say lack resources for health care, job training and children's activities.
People's Community Health Center — a nonprofit based in Baltimore — expects to serve at least 8,000 patients each year at the clinic. The organization is used to offering medical care in "underserved" communities.
But this part of Severn is in another category altogether, said Stacy Fruhling, chief administrative officer of People's, who called the neighborhood, "almost forgotten."
The health and community center will sit between the Meade Village public housing community and the Pioneer Drive neighborhood — often called Pioneer City. Residents of the small townhouses along Pioneer Drive have seen troubles over the years with violence and landlords who didn't maintain their properties.
Residents say creating a positive outlet for young people will be key to improving quality of life in the neighborhood. Gathers — known around the neighborhood as Ms. G. — believes a community center could have saved the lives of young people in the area who've died because of street violence and drugs.
She's been working on the project so long that the initial group of children she lobbied politicians about are now grown with children of their own — though a few, she says, are dead or in jail. She hopes the next generation of children will benefit from having affordable health care and safe recreation options.
"Kids need a chance to come out and be themselves, because there's a lot of stress in some of these homes," she said.
Initially, Gathers and her neighbors sought help in building a community center. Peoples became involved about 15 years ago, when county health officials asked the organization to set up a clinic in the neighborhood.
Peoples turned a end-unit townhouse into a small clinic, and Gathers forged a relationship with CEO Patricia Cassett. Cassett wanted to build a full-fledged clinic, and the two realized a clinic and community center could be combined into one project.
Even after that collaboration, it took many more years to secure a location and funding for the 32,000-square-foot building. The Anne Arundel school system agreed in 2012 to lease land next to Van Bokkelen school for the center for $10 per year for 30 years.
The project took another big step after Maryland Live casino opened a few miles away at Arundel Mills, sending a steady stream of money to community projects in the form of grants. The Severn project is receiving $1.9 million in the current budget year from the casino money.
County Councilman Daryl Jones, who lives in Severn, is among county and state officials who have worked on the project.
"It's a very good example of what is possible when private industry, government and community come together," he said.
In addition to the casino, other funding sources include the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ($5 million), the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene ($1.6 million) and the state Department of General Services ($250,000). People's has also conducted community fundraising campaigns, including a 5K race.
The total cost of the project is estimated to be $11.5 million, and about $8.8 million has been raised. Organizers are trying to secure about $1 million more from the state and are working to get money from private foundations.
The health center will offer medical care, dental care and mental health services. There will be a drive-through pharmacy and an urgent care clinic. The center will serve people with private insurance, medical assistance and Medicare. Uninsured patients will pay on a sliding scale, and specialists will help determine if patients are eligible for assistance with health care.
The community center will be run by a task force that includes representatives from neighborhoods, county agencies, the police, a local church, Baltimore Washington Medical Center and other organizations. Some organizations will lease space within the center to help keep it financially self-sustaining.
The center will include a gym, computer room, community garden and teaching kitchen.
Lisa Shore lives in Pasadena but became interested in the Severn project after learning about it through the Leadership Anne Arundel program. "The whole idea of the community center got stuck in my head," she said.
Shore has been volunteering to help get the center off the ground and carries with her a large binder of news clippings and documentation of the efforts. Her latest project was to secure a grant to hire an artist to help Van Bokkelen students create a mosaic mural for the community center.
Shore believes the health and community center can be a catalyst for change in the neighborhood.
"This project is bigger than all of us," she said.
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