Ray Lewis, Ravens visit schools in West Baltimore

How do the Baltimore Ravens plan to help city gripped by violence in wake of Freddie Gray's death? Here's how.

They left Matthew A. Henson Elementary School around 10 a.m. Thursday. The group of Ravens, about 25 strong, walked quietly up North Pulaski Street, crossed North Avenue and then headed up a hill toward Frederick Douglass High School.

Ray Lewis, the team’s former linebacker, hung toward the back, occasionally stopping to say hello to residents or passersby who called his name. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was closer to the front, waving his hand and imploring one onlooker to join the group.

“Guys were looking for something, like what could they do?,” Harbaugh said. “Football, it’s like any sport, it’s a bonding business, and we have guys that love this city.”

Not long after the violence began in Baltimore Monday, the Ravens started to discuss ways that they could help the city. Lewis, who took to social media to denounce the riots, said that he and Harbaugh spoke immediately and both men vowed to do their part.

On Thursday, 55 current or former Ravens players and 30 coaches and team employees traveled to the West Baltimore communities most affected by the week’s events, which followed the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who died while in police custody.

“We’re a little bit removed, so it’s tough to really get a grip on what’s actually going on,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “But the main thing we can do is help clean up, and help put a smile on people’s faces.”

The Ravens broke into groups and visited Henson Elementary School, Douglass High and Excel Academy. They spoke to students and staff members, along with local residents, helped distribute food and tried to lift the spirits of a community that they said badly needed it.

By the time the Ravens departed about 21/2 hours later, local residents had lined the sidewalks, looking for a hug, handshake or a photo. Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, wearing a purple Ravens hat, also joined the group.

“It’s unfortunate that it takes a crisis such as we saw for our true spirit to come out,” Rawlings-Blake said. “This is what Baltimore is about.”

Along with the Ravens, the Maryland Food Bank donated 30,000 pounds of food and Giant provided 7,000 items of food and toiletries. The goal was to feed 600 families. Sadie Brown, a 30-year-old resident of the neighborhood, said that the gesture will “touch a lot of people” after the nearby grocery store was looted and burned during Monday’s riots, and a pharmacy was badly damaged.

Later in the day NBA star Carmelo Anthony, who grew up playing basketball in West Baltimore, marched with protesters. Anthony in 2006 donated $1.5 million to open the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center on East Fayette Street.

At Henson, Ravens players and coaches unloaded boxes and unpacked cans of vegetables. Wide receiver Michael Campanaro (River Hill) bagged apples. Punter Sam Koch and long snapper Morgan Cox gathered boxes of cereal and oatmeal. An assembly line of linemen, tight ends, and coaches passed crates of water and juice.

A small group of players, which included Flacco and cornerback Jimmy Smith, went classroom-to-classroom with the school’s principal to meet the students.

“I understand the pain, obviously don’t condone the violence, but understand the pain ... you can see it in their face and see it in their eyes that they’re sad about how the city is run, about how they feel like they’re kind of being suppressed over here and not having any opportunities,” Smith said. “I heard a lot of their stories and felt bad. I wish I could do more.”

When the group of Ravens arrived at Douglass, they first met with the Ducks’ football team. Harbaugh urged the group to stay disciplined and be leaders for the school.

The Ravens then filed into the auditorium where Lewis spoke for 15 minutes, urging students to “be an example of change.”

“This is an opportunity for everybody to find out who they are in trying times,” said Lewis, who was supposed to be in Chicago to be part of ESPN’s broadcast of the NFL draft, but felt it was more important to help the city. “The spotlight is on us, it’s on Baltimore. We’re all we got. We have an opportunity to change Baltimore.”

One student asked Lewis if he was at Douglass because he had heard that it was the school that started the trouble, or if he truly cared about enacting change. One administrator asked Lewis if he would remain committed to helping in the days ahead.

“We’re just beginning,” Lewis said. “This is where we are going to start. We will find a way and we’ll make sure we do it together.”

Asked what he took from Lewis’ speech, Douglass sophomore Akil Williams said, “The most important thing is we just have to do better as a whole and join together.”

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