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Kids Safe Zone founder: 'I have severed ties' with West Baltimore non-profit Penn North

Ericka Alston-Buck
Ericka Alston-Buck (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

The founder of the Kids Safe Zone in West Baltimore left the organization and is looking to serve children across the city living in poverty and amid high crime.

Ericka Alston-Buck said she could not be fully committed to the responsibilities of running both the Kids Safe Zone and the adjoining Penn North Recovery center while raising money to keep the operations going. Both programs will continue under new leadership.

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“For me to be able to do all of that in the capacity that I wanted, I needed to walk away,” said Alston-Buck, who was hired a month before the 2015 unrest as a public relations specialist for the drug treatment center.

She created the Kids Safe Zone in the wake of the unrest following Freddie Gray’s death and was tapped soon after to become CEO of the entire operation. Attendance at Kids Safe Zone has dwindled from a high of 100 children to an average of 20.

“Stepping away gave me an opportunity to do as much as I want to do or as little as I want to do,” she said. “But I know my commitment and my responsibility to advocate for the youth in Baltimore, and that is what I am centering my efforts on.”

Alston-Buck said her plans are still taking shape, but she knows she wants to operate services for children and their parents in some of the city’s most troubled areas. She said she has the backing of both Mayor Catherine Pugh and her “angel” Chris Hicks, a West Texas oilman who has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Kids Safe Zone. Her immediate goal is to find new space to provide services that, unlike the Kids Safe Zone, are some distance from a drug treatment center.

“Right now, my focus is on a larger scale and helping our mayor and our new police commissioner provide safe spaces all over Baltimore City,” she said. “I don’t know in what capacity, but I know I am going to be the driving force behind it.”

Pugh said Saturday that she is standing by to help Alston-Buck and the Kids Safe Zone as both transition. She has called on officials from the city Department of Recreation and Parks to convene a meeting in the coming days to assess the opportunities available for children in West Baltimore, especially since the nearby Shake and Bake Family Fun Center remains closed for renovations.

“One thing we don’t want is children falling between the cracks,” the mayor said. “We don’t want anyone to think there is not any place to go. There are plenty of programs for the children and we look forward to working with Ericka.”

Hicks also affirmed his commitment to both Alston-Buck and the Kids Safe Zone.

“I will help however I can within my means with the Kids Safe Zone,” Hicks said in a text message. “I will also support Ericka if she chooses to continue in new endeavors within this space — providing a place for a kid to be a kid. For me, it was always what God put on my heart ... Ericka was just an added bonus through out the years.”

Confusion arose briefly over the future of the Kids Safe Zone, but signs were posted at the center Saturday to make it clear that its operations will continue.

One sign said the Kids Safe Zone “is not closed.” Another announcement posted on the door said it would reopen on Tuesday.

“We are still here for the children of the Sandtown-Winchester community!” another sign read.

Essence Smith was Alston-Buck’s assistant and has now stepped into the director’s position. She said she expects the transition to be “seamless.”

The center will be closed Monday for internal reorganization. It last operated on Friday when Smith said she took a group of about 16 children to a swimming lesson.

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Smith said she expects to make changes in the programming offered at the center to draw more children, including adding more field trips, teaching life skills and putting an emphasis on West Baltimore’s storied entertainment history and contributions its residents have made to the city over time.

“We don’t want to change the culture of the neighborhood,” Smith said. “We want to make sure everyone in the neighborhood has the same opportunity as people outside of the neighborhood, to make sure we have equality.”

Smith declined to speak to the circumstances of Alston-Buck’s departure, but said, “Ericka and I have worked side-by-side growing and developing the organization. Our friendship will continue and I wish her the best.”

Alston-Buck said she is not worried about the staff’s ability to continue to provide a center that offers the same energy and atmosphere as it did under her, but she is concerned about the fundraising demands that the staff will face.

In a Facebook post, Alston-Buck said that she faced pressure from the board at Penn North to dissolve operations at the Kids Safe Zone because of the fiscal demands it placed on the overall organization.

“My only fear is that 99 percent of my time was spent fundraising for the Kids Safe Zone,” Alston-Buck said. “I know the donations, the contributions, the support is personal. People believed in me, my vision and my passion. My only concern for Penn North is that funding will probably decrease.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

Neighborhood boys and girls participated in push-up drills and other fitness activities during a Tuesday morning WNBA Fit Clinic at Penn-North Kids Safe Zone. (Michael Brice-Saddler/Baltimore Sun video)
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