Several familiar Baltimore storylines come together in a bright classroom on the east side of the city, two flights up from little Mura Street, where Vanessa Williams speaks proudly of her after-school program, its 92 “scholars” and its nurturing atmosphere — and all of that despite the trouble on Monday morning that left her with a split lip.
Williams is the program director at the Collington Club, known simply as “The Club” to those who go there.
It started as a youth drop-in center a decade ago. An Episcopal organization acquired four old rowhouses, connected them and converted them into space for classrooms and a kitchen.
For the last five years, dozens of children, from kindergartners to seventh-graders — Williams calls them her “scholars,” and sometimes “my babies” — have been going to The Club five afternoons a week for tutoring, hugs and hot meals. Even more children take summer classes there.
That’s so Baltimore: A small nonprofit doing quiet, steady good on a side street in a tough part of town.
Here you have a sustaining effort to help poor children thrive, to tutor them in math and English and the sciences, and expose them to the arts — drumming, drama and dance — that they can’t get in their public elementary or middle schools. There’s a game room where the kids learn chess and checkers, too.
Here you have a sanctuary, a safe place for boys and girls between school and home, and a second home at that. “If there were beds, some of them would sleep here,” says Williams.
The kids get a snack when they arrive, and dinner, prepared by chef Vince Cole, before their parents pick them up at 6:30. There’s a small food pantry for families in need, and a laundry room that parents can use.
Students from Morgan State and Coppin State universities and Baltimore City Community College help the children with their learning.
Munir Bahar, founder of Baltimore’s 300 Men March and a martial arts instructor who established a Japanese-style dojo a block away, visits the children frequently, too.
He and the college students are role models for the kids, filling the need for positive in the midst of so much negative — the drugs, the violence, the daily stress of life in East Baltimore.
The Club has a special relationship with a suburban church, too.
It was Episcopal Community Services of Maryland that established the program, and, though Strong City Baltimore manages The Club now, the parish of St. John’s Church in Ellicott City supports the annual gift drive for Christmas. Williams sends the parish a wish list for each child, and the parishioners at St. John’s fulfill it with toys and bicycles and winter coats. This year, the donations filled a room on the first floor of The Club.
And then there are the police from the Eastern District. Officer Keshia Whitted, Sgt. Kimberly Grinage and Officer Ronnie Randolph Jr. frequently visit The Club. Children once suspicious now trust them. Children once rude now hug them. “They hug the officers before they hug me,” Williams says. She considers the kids’ embrace of the police an important breakthrough.
Two of the officers came around last Monday, but this time — for the first time — it was to investigate a crime.
Here it is, another familiar story line from Baltimore.
Someone got into the room with all the Christmas gifts, made a mess of the place and stole several items before Williams, who was alone in her second-floor office, heard a noise and went to investigate.
She found a young man with a winter hat pulled over his head and most of his face; he had some items in his arms.
“What are you doing? Why are you here?” Williams asked, and in the next instant she pushed toward the thief. The thief dropped the items and swiped at Williams with a fist, hitting her on the mouth, splitting her lip. Williams fell backward. The thief ran out of the building.
Williams was shaken by the encounter, of course, but also disappointed that the young man had resorted to theft and violence to get what he needed. He could have just knocked on her door, she says: “If he had just asked me for something, I would have given it to him.”
The incident caused a delay in the distribution of gifts, but by the time I visited Williams on Thursday, most of the stolen items had been replaced and all the toys and bikes and coats from St. John’s delivered to parents in plenty of time for Christmas.
The only thing missing — and this will sound Baltimore-familiar, too — was the sense of safety, of sanctuary, The Club offered. “For me, it’s been violated,” Williams says.
But she’s not going anywhere. She strikes me as a resilient woman, committed to a quiet, steady good. People like that don’t give up easily. And that’s so Baltimore, too.