City rec center: a refuge for kids in West Baltimore

Reservoir Hill rec center is a place of refuge for neighborhood's youths

The boys begin their basketball practice at Reservoir Hill's recreation center in the same way every week: lying quietly on the gym floor, arms stretched or folded beneath their heads, listening as their coach tells them to breathe in and breathe out.

Rodell Bailey-EL, a former drug addict and one-time dealer, says the John Eager Howard Recreation Center is a place of respite for the boys he coaches, and for the dozens of other children who pass through its busy doors each day.

It is a refuge from empty homes where too many mothers must work long hours and too many fathers aren't around, he says. Its recreation programs are an alternative to having the boys out "shooting dice, selling drugs, skipping school and busting windows."

"What got us here was neglect," Bailey-EL, 49, says of Baltimore's recent unrest.

The longtime volunteer gestures to his basketball kids, who range in age from 5 to 15. "When you look at them, do you know what I see? I see the next adult. If they are fractured, they are going to be the next fractured adults. If they are stable, then they will have stability in adulthood.

"How we help them now is going to determine how they are going to be as adults."

Community leaders and social welfare advocates point to the city's more than 50 public or nonprofit rec centers as key resources to help lead change in impoverished and struggling neighborhoods.

Bailey-EL says relationships built at Reservoir Hill's rec center and community basketball courts can help youths surrounded by drugs, gangs and violence to make better choices.

He was among the men who gathered hundreds of youths to the Cloverdale basketball court — less than half a mile from a CVS that had burned — as neighborhood leaders worried frustrations would boil into prolonged rioting last month.

The men were "keeping guys calmed down," said Bailey-EL, who also runs a nonprofit that works with young men.

Vibrant rec centers are places where young people can find positive influences and adults they can trust, said Rachel Donegan of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who heads a partnership of public and private groups working in West Baltimore.

Donegan said the city needs more rec centers like John Eager Howard, with its play areas and structured programming. Community groups and city employees should together decide where and how the centers should operate, she said.

"Financial constraints are real, and we can't have a rec center on every corner," Donegan said. "But let's go beyond sports and arts and crafts."

The John Eager Howard center, in the 2100 block of Brookfield Ave., is one of 40 centers run by the city's Department of Recreation and Parks.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake faced criticism for her decision in 2011 to close about 15 centers in favor of using the money to build new ones, including the $4.4 million Morrell Park center that opened last summer, the first new rec center built in a decade.

Rawlings-Blake proposes spending $13.2 million to operate rec centers during the budget year that begins July 1, about a million more than this year.

Some city council members and community leaders say the city should spend more. The mayor says she's waiting for the council to hold a hearing on her bill to sell four of the city's downtown parking garages to generate up to $60 million to build new centers and run them.

After school at John Eager Howard recently, a group of 7-year-old girls pulled pieces of yarn through a cardboard box as their art teacher helped finish a pink and green and purple pompom that one later tied in her hair. An activity of watercolors and paper mache crafts had to be put on hold while the center waits for parts to fix an old sink in the art room.

Across the center, a dozen others boys and girls — still wearing their school uniforms — practiced karate in the multipurpose room, a space that takes turns as the spot for meditation, runway modeling, marching band drills and parenting workshops.

Lewyn Garrett, a city orphans' court judge, leads the martial arts lesson, as he's done for years as a volunteer twice a week.

"Step, punch — like this," Garrett calls out to the children. "Left leg, left arm. Watch me. Step and punch. Step and punch. Step and punch."

Garrett says the children learn much more than karate while they're at the center.

"The kids always ask, 'When are you going to teach us how to fight?' And my answer is always the same: 'When you learn how not to fight.'" he says. "A kid learns much more by what you do, not by what you say."

Tracey Estep, chief of recreation operations for the city, said the centers constantly work to re-invent programming to engage more people in the community. Staff survey community members to get input and "out-of-the-box thinking."

The city recently bought each center three new game tables, including pool and ping pong, Estep said. Last year, officials decided to extend summer hours to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, adding three hours. Centers now offer the popular dance fitness program Zumba, "spitting sessions" for teens to recite poetry to music, weight training and smoking cessation classes.

In Reservoir Hill, staff say they try to stretch the center's $234,000 budget as far as possible and order new equipment seasonally. Some point to a need for more basketballs and scrimmage jerseys to help players distinguish their teammate from the opposition. But many say what's needed most is extra space.

Estep says that's also in the works. The center — attached to an elementary school of the same name — is set to receive a complete transformation under the city's plan to spend $1.1 billion on new school construction.

Tyese Hamilton says she's eager to see the rec expanded. She's been coming to the center since she was a girl growing up in the neighborhood. Now 35, she brings her daughter and son to play two or three times a week.

While she and her daughter take dance classes, Hamilton's 15-year-old son, Trejour Owens, is shooting hoops. But his time at the rec isn't just about basketball.

"He gets to mentor and tutor the younger kids," his mom says. "He talks to them about the importance of school and staying on the right track."

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