Longtime recreation leader runs popular after-school program

The dozens of children who spend their after-school hours at the Stanton Community Center in downtown Annapolis can find help with homework, or a game of basketball. They get a bag lunch and assistance from a friendly group of volunteers.

But the most dominant presence in this historic city building is the man they call Mr. Lassie.

Everybody refers to recreation leader George Belt as Lassie, a childhood nickname that has stuck for all his 60 years. (When he was born the third child in three years, his grandparents told his mother he should be called "Lastie," though she went on to have seven more children. His older siblings transmuted the name into "Lassie" after the popular 1950s TV show.) He knows every child, as well as the siblings, cousins and, in some cases, their parents.

"Most of these kids make a beeline to the center right after school," he said. "This is their haven, their lighthouse, their beacon. This is the oasis, where they get love, attention, encouragement and fun."

Belt, whose work attire typically includes a red community-center T-shirt, is usually in his office by early afternoon. He sits, surrounded by children's artwork, catching up on paperwork and organizing plans for what is often a 10-hour shift. He has been on the job for 32 years and "retirement is not an option," he said.

He is working with county schools and community groups to organize a parent workshop from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. next Friday at the center. "How to Get Involved with Your Child's Education" will feature several guest speakers, including Belt.

"A lot of people don't understand the importance of education," said Belt, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Morgan State University. "We will be stressing the need for early education and giving children the fundamentals so they can move on."

Diane Bragdon, principal at Wiley H. Bates Middle School, will be a presenter, along with the school's social worker and guidance counselor. They will demonstrate several helpful computer software programs that will allow parents to participate in their children's education, she said.

"This workshop will help a segment of our school community who are right there in the neighborhood that the center serves," Bragdon said. "We will offer practical ways for parents to get involved. This event will help generate parent understanding and involvement and maybe foster discussions around the family dinner table."

Bragdon said she and her faculty appreciate the support the Stanton Center offers students on a daily basis.

"They really try to do so much for our kids," she said. "We really appreciate the help, especially for kids who don't have a home computer. They can be just as competitive on their projects by working in the center's safe, nurturing environment."

Students can work at their own pace in the center's classroom, equipped with the latest technology, or at stations with individual tutors or in the computer room.

"Hi, Mr. Lassie," said Kamari Fowlkes, 11, usually one of the first after-school arrivals. "I need a little help with my homework. Can I use the computer room?"

The middle-school children usually drift in first for the daily After School Homework Club, which Belt organized decades ago for some kids, who are now parents of the current crop of attendees. Most, like Kamari, pop in the door with a greeting and a request.

Belt fist-bumps Trenton Cully, 9, who said, "I just have my spelling to do today. Then, can I play basketball?"

Hakeem Miller, 13, said he could do his homework on his own but prefers to come to the center.

"I like to come here and play basketball with my friends," he said. "Then, I stay off the streets."

By 4 p.m., what Belt calls a wave of kids — the youngest in kindergarten — hits the center on West Washington Street. Some walk, but school buses drop off most. Many will be there until about 7:30 p.m., and Belt is constantly among them, ready to handle all contingencies. He is supervising homework and kids on computers, organizing games and even filling lunch orders. He can manage quadratic equations, geometric drawings and sentence structure.

"We have lunches and drinks for them and a friendly face," he said. "You name it, and we are that for them."

The work is nonstop, yet each child receives his attention or that of any one of numerous volunteers. Belt calls the retirees, students and other volunteers who often come to the center every day "my angels."

"This goes far beyond the homework club," he said. "We are involved with these kids on a personal basis."

When a child opened a lunch bag without chips, Belt said, "No problem," and headed to the kitchen to retrieve a snack. Tracy Wells, 5, tugged at his arm.

"I brought my cars today." Tracy said. "Can we build the track?'

Belt would soon pull a Hot Wheels track from the closet and set it up on the gym floor. A volunteer asked him if any gym uniforms were available for two students whose physical education grades were lowered because of lack of proper attire. "I can get uniforms for both of them today," Belt said.

"Lassie has been the mentor here for generations," said Dee De Rivers, a volunteer for nearly 20 years. "He has so embraced these kids today and often their parents from years ago."

No one is more conversant with the problems many of the center's families face than Belt. A lifelong Annapolis resident who used to jog the two miles to work, he grew up a stone's throw away in public housing, the third of 10 children whose father worked as a mail clerk at the U.S. Naval Academy for nearly 50 years.

"I lived right around the corner from here, until I got out of grad school," he said. "I know what goes on in public housing, the broken families, the drugs, the alcohol, all the ills you can think of. But I also saw all the good of families that looked out for each other."

For many kids, he knows the center is "the one piece of stability" in their lives. "They might leave us, but we never leave them," he said.

Belt, a husband and a father of two sons, recently became a grandfather and is an assistant pastor at his church. He has no plans to leave his job, which he said "has paid off in blessings." And he won't let up the pace.

"You want each one of these kids to make it," he said. "We collaborate with their teachers and all of us here go at this with one mindset — this kid is going to succeed."