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T. Rowe Price Foundation pledges $1.3 million for West Baltimore

A file photo from T. Rowe Price Group's headquarters in downtown Baltimore.
A file photo from T. Rowe Price Group's headquarters in downtown Baltimore. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun)

A few years from now, John Brothers hopes some of Baltimore's poorest residents won't have to take a series of buses to some other community to buy fresh fruit.

Making fresh produce more accessible throughout West Baltimore is just one goal of an ambitious, three-year initiative begun this week by the T. Rowe Price Foundation, which has pledged $1.3 million in grants for West Baltimore neighborhoods.

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The Baltimore-based money management firm's philanthropic foundation began looking for a role it could play in West Baltimore in the wake of last April's unrest sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, said Brothers, the foundation's president.

The organization spent months meeting with community members and consulting with urban poverty experts before deciding to invest in strengthening existing nonprofits already at work on initiatives such as after-school programs and soup kitchens, helping adults and children improve financial knowledge and growing fresh produce that can be sold or donated to residents.

The grants represent the largest amount the foundation has pledged at once for a specific initiative.

"We really love being in Baltimore... and wanted to be supportive of that [West Baltimore] community and lend resources to be able to heal in ways that made sense," Brothers said. "The goal is hopefully to see some good seedlings of change that happen as a result."

The biggest chunk of the grants, $575,000, will be divided between efforts to extend the reach of nonprofits serving West Baltimore and to improve leadership of its schools. The Maryland Association of Nonprofits and Baltimore Corps will work with nonprofits to help them serve the community more effectively, while New Leaders, a training program for principals of underperforming schools, will work on developing school leaders.

A $480,000 grant will be used for financial education programs, through a partnership between Junior Achievement, which helps kids with work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy, and Baltimore CASH and Maryland CASH, which work to boost the financial security of low-income people. The goal is to provide financial education in an area that lacks access to banks and capital, Brothers said.

Another $200,000 will allow No Boundaries Coalition, a resident-led advocacy group, and Strength to Love Farm II to grow fresh produce that can be sold and donated.

Brothers said the problem of "food deserts," or lack of grocery stores or markets with fresh food, kept coming up at community meetings.

"This issue was so top-of-mind," he said.

David Guzman, principal of Matthew A. Henson Elementary School in Sandtown, said he sees the grant money as a way to begin "to take on deep-rooted challenges the community has."

The 21217 ZIP code where the school is located has the highest incarceration rate in the state and a median income of less than $25,000 annually. The school has a food bank, but otherwise, healthy, nutritious food is lacking in the neighborhood, he said.

"It's concentrated poverty, concentrated violence," said Guzman, who went through the New Leaders principal training that will be funded through the grant. "A lot of our kids come into school significantly behind. Our kindergartners... come to school below grade level, with no concept of literacy.

"The teachers do an amazing job of playing catch-up," he said, and the school has been outperforming city averages.

Sara Johnson, director of Baltimore CASH, said the grant will allow her organization and partner groups to expand upon their work in a more targeted way in Sandtown. The group, which relies upon volunteers, will be able to train more residents to be financial coaches and work with Junior Achievement in the schools.

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It's important to start early having conversations with students about finances and the work world, said Jennifer Bodensiek, president and CEO of Junior Achievement of Central Maryland.

"If the conversations aren't happening at school or in the community or at home, they're not getting it," she said, and after high school, "financial management can be one of the greatest struggles."

"Our goals in the project are to work on increasing access to financial education and financial coaching, as well as tax preparation," Johnson said. "People really want this information. They want quality information on how to manage their money so their money isn't managing them. ... We want to see positive energy and positive things happening in West Baltimore."

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