Cassandra Fair enjoyed exercise class. Anita Maynor received resume writing tips and job leads. Others got blood pressure screenings, legal advice or access to organic food.

All of this happened under the same West Baltimore roof that houses the new Community Engagement Center, the brainchild of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.


Although it officially opened Saturday in Poppleton with a festival beginning at 10 a.m., the center quietly began operating in October. It's a kind of one-stop shop for various services the campus has offered its neighbors for years, plus new offerings like exercise and wellness classes and workforce training and job fairs that officials believe are needed urgently in the community.

"We all use the term anchor institution, and it implies to me and others that you're doing something for the community in which you live," said Dr. Jay A. Perman, the university president. "We feel West Baltimore is not just the community that is adjacent, or across the street."

Perman conceived of the center before frustrations boiled over last year after the death of Freddie Gray but worked to get it opened more quickly after the unrest that laid bare the pressing need. The center is located on the first floor of a garage that serves the university's BioPark. Perman said fundraising is underway for a larger space to accommodate more programming such as youth recreation.

The general idea is to serve neighbors who may have felt the "big brick buildings" of the university were off-putting, Perman said. Others may have used one or two free services over the years, such as dental screenings for kids or help with a tenant-landlord dispute, but they didn't know about other assistance.

Having one clearly labeled "front door" will help bring in people, he said.

With all of the university's services — delivered by faculty, staff and students in medicine, nursing, law, pharmacy, social work and dentistry — in one place, neighbors can learn about another service when they come in for something else, said Ashley Valis, who helped launch the center as the university's executive director of strategic initiatives and community engagement. She said they'll continually look for ways to add more services, such as having the center be an official early voting site.

Many of the university's neighbors live in poverty and have higher rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and chronic conditions such as asthma. Many, however, are motivated to improve the community's fortunes, Valis said.

One important legal service the center offers is guidance on expunging criminal records, which could help people secure a job, said Dawna Cobb, director of a program called Just Advice that plans a permanent office in the new center staffed by law students and supervising attorneys.

Officials plan to seek advice on new offerings from people such as Fair, a retired correctional officer, and her mother Ernestine Fair, a community activist.

"I've told them I thought it was a good idea to offer different things for the community in one place," said Fair, who discovered the center recently when she walked past it. "It's a big university, and they want to better the environment. They're not obligated to do it, but people here don't have a lot and they have the university resources to share."

Fair has taken aerobics and dance classes, attended seminars on diabetes and hypertension, and encouraged her son to attend a Baltimore Green Works job training program he found through the center that aims to prepare him for a more highly skilled, higher-paying career, she said.

Maynor, an unemployed Army veteran, was also asked to advise university officials on community needs. She told them the community's No. 1 issue is jobs. She has already gotten help retooling her resume and applying for university and affiliated medical system positions and had three interviews. She's hoping to become a secretary in one of the university-related buildings, just blocks from her Hollins Roundhouse neighborhood.

"I live so close to the University of Maryland, but there was a missing bridge, a gap for people like me in the neighborhood," Maynor said. "Now they have Workforce Wednesdays where you can apply for jobs and get help with resumes and cover letters. ... I've had a first, second and third interview, and I feel good about getting something."