Freddie Gray youth center, mentors aim to protect Baltimore children this summer

$1.1M youth center, hundreds of mentors among efforts to protect Baltimore's children.

When April Hopps' son, Jordan, graduated from high school, he left Baltimore. He had grown up, she said, believing the city "didn't have anything for him."

Hopps is proud of her now 21-year-old son's accomplishments — getting into college in Miami, completing an internship with a major sports network — but she wants to make her hometown a better place for youngsters to grow up.

As the city, state and other groups spend millions of dollars to step up summer outreach to children following Freddie Gray's death and April's civil unrest, Hopps and hundreds of other volunteers are working with community and faith leaders to create opportunities for them and keep them safe from violence.

The Empowerment Temple is converting a building in Bolton Hill — where Hopps has been volunteering — to a children's center named for Gray; it will offer free meals and camps. Volunteers are flocking by the hundreds to Big Brothers Big Sisters, offering to mentor youths in Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray was arrested.

Others are collecting money, food and school supplies for some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. A fire dispatcher in the city donated $30,000, and raised even more from businesses, to revitalize the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center in West Baltimore. And the 300 Men March, a community group that takes to city streets to de-escalate violence, is recruiting for its youth leadership program, which pays adolescents to take training in peer-to-peer mediation and other violence prevention methods.

Gray, 25, died a week after sustaining a spinal cord injury while in police custody, leading to protests and then riots that prompted officials to declare a state of emergency, deploy the National Guard and implement a citywide curfew.

Ten children have been killed in the city this year, up from seven during the same period last year. The number of children wounded in shootings has jumped to more than 20 this year from three during the comparable period last year, according to City Councilman Brandon M. Scott, the vice chair of the public safety committee.

Hopps and Gail Evans were among the volunteers who have spent recent days painting bright colors on the walls of the Freddie Gray Children's Empowerment Center, in the former Labor Union headquarters building on Eutaw Place.

"Playing outside in Baltimore City is no longer safe," Evans said. "This is a place to feel safe and to have adult supervision."

The massive building has more than 40 rooms, including nine classrooms, a computer lab, a game room, seven offices and a main hall and an auditorium that can each fit 300 people.

The center will offer three free camps, starting Tuesday: a course teaching science, math, language arts and computer skills; a cultural arts program featuring painting, music and creative writing; and an athletic camp with basketball, indoor soccer, fitness and weight training. Programs for younger kids will take place in the morning and afternoon; teenagers will be able to stay until 10 p.m.

Volunteers at the center will also hand out 500 free meals a day to local children ages 8 to 17.

The Rev. Jamal H. Bryant, the Empowerment Temple's pastor, said the church put the building up for sale two years ago but took it off the market after the unrest. When Bryant told his large Northwest Baltimore congregation about the idea for a youth center, they donated nearly $30,000 in one day, he said.

"Part of what it is we're endeavoring to do is be a lamplight example of what can be done when the community comes together," he said.

The renovations will cost about $50,000, Bryant said. He said the church has won a grant to provide the food, which volunteers will serve at breakfast and lunch.

Children must register to attend, and volunteers will canvass poor westside neighborhoods to sign them up, Bryant said. Volunteers will be required to undergo background checks to be involved.

Joseph Greene, the Empowerment Temple's maintenance facilitator, said the center will be an escape for kids who don't have a place to go when they aren't in school.

"At a time where if you turn on the news, it's so much violence outside, I think kids really need a safe house," he said. "This will be a nice, happy, safe house for that time period, where they can come in and feel free to not worry about what's going on on the outside."

The city's youth curfew allows for children between 14 and 16 years old to stay out until 11 p.m. on weekends and in the summer, and 10 p.m. on school nights. Children under 14 must be off the streets by 9 p.m. year-round.

Gray's death and the ensuing unrest grabbed international attention and galvanized many to take part in volunteer work in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

More than 600 people have asked to become mentors with Big Brothers and Sisters of Central Maryland since Gray died. That's about two years of volunteers in two months, said Terry Hickey, president and CEO of the nonprofit group.

"There's a far greater sense of urgency" among those who apply, Hickey said. Applicants are rapidly completing the paperwork and background checks needed to mentor a young person with the organization.

Ashlee Banks, a 23-year-old news anchor for WEAA, Morgan State University's NPR affiliate, is among those who signed up to volunteer with the organization.

"The Freddie Gray situation made me want to help," said Banks, a Howard County resident. "I know I can extend my hand to help a young woman growing up in Baltimore City or County."

Kevan Marvasti, 34, who moved to Baltimore about two months ago, also signed up to become a mentor with Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

He and his wife had been living in Germany before moving to Baltimore, and had vowed to become involved in volunteer work here. Gray's death helped cement Marvasti's desire to pitch in.

"We have the opportunity to help shape a kid's life, to empower them to let them know they can achieve," said Marvasti, a consultant living in Brewer's Hill.

Even children have been inspired to help Sandtown.

Jason Byrd, a sixth-grade student at New Market Middle School in Howard County, is raising money to provide school supplies and uniforms to students at Gilmor Elementary, a school a short distance from the location of Gray's arrest.

Jason toured the school with his mother and was struck by the poverty of the surrounding community.

"It seemed way different than you would think of Baltimore … than the skyscrapers and stadium where we normally go," he said. "There were no playgrounds for kids, but lots of liquor stores."

Jason's father, Eric Byrd, helped him set up an online fundraiser called Jason's Backpacks for kids at the school. The 12-year-old has raised more than $5,000 of his goal of $40,000 — which will cover new backpacks, uniforms and school supplies for the school's 328 students.

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