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Church restores abandoned East Baltimore home to give to veteran

Church restores abandoned East Baltimore home to give to veteran
Mayor Jack Young congratulates Leon Ralph Noel, right, as Noel learned he's the owner of a renovated house in East Baltimore. Bishop Bart Pierce, senior pastor of Rock City Church, left, made the announcement during a block party on the street. (Lorraine Mirabella)

Leon Ralph Noel went to a block party in East Baltimore on Saturday and ended up with a house.

Noel, a veteran who has always rented, learned Saturday afternoon that he would be given a newly renovated rowhouse in the 2500 block of E. Hoffman St., which was cordoned off for a party with a band, hot dogs and a bounce house.

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He was one of several veterans who applied to become a recipient of a house through Rock City Church’s Adopt-A-Block Inc. program. The Towson-based church puts on block parties with music and food in high-crime city neighborhoods each summer to get to know residents and help connect them with services.

And once a year for the past 17 years, the church has worked with volunteers and corporate sponsors to renovate an abandoned house in one of those neighborhoods. They review applications and give the property to a Baltimore-area veteran who is 52 or older and has never owned a home.

Noel appeared overcome. Originally from New York, the 73-year-old was a Marine who served two tours in Vietnam and one in Grenada and came to Baltimore in 1968, where he served in the Army Reserves. Now renting in Woodlawn, Noel said he planned to move in with his daughter and 4-year-old granddaughter.

“I never thought I’d be the one to get this house; I really need a home,” Noel said after stepping inside and looking around. “I just thank God. … Owning a home is everything. It’s yours.”

On the 2500 block of East Hoffman, several boarded, vacant homes share the block with occupied houses. Before April, the house that Adopt-A-Block acquired had no back wall. It had been abandoned as long as some neighbors could remember, at least 15 years. Many of the building supplies, fixtures and appliances were supplied by Home Depot, a sponsor of the project for the past seven years. Home Depot’s Dundalk store manager, Steve Galliard, said the retailer and its charitable foundation started working with other groups on the house in late winter.

The house that Noel toured for the first time and then was showed off to Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Baltimore Mayor Jack Young and other city and county officials on Saturday had been transformed. It had gleaming hardwood floors, exposed brick, fresh paint and new appliances.

Turning an abandoned house into an owner-occupied house can have a big impact on a block and beyond to the neighborhood, Cummings told the crowd before Noel’s name was announced.

“There’s nothing like having a decent house,” Cummings said. “It just elevates children and it helps them feel better about themselves. When we can do a house like this,” it can help attract more investment to the block and the neighborhood.

The block party effort and house giveaways have succeeded because of many partnerships, with city churches, neighborhood groups and area businesses, said Wayman Hicks, a staff pastor at Rock City Church and director of the Adopt-A-Block program. The church aims to bring resources to people in high-crime areas that may not want to ask for help or know where to go for it, he said.

“We’re just looking to build a relationship. ... A lot of it is about can we connect with the adults to get to the kids. And say hey, we’re here to really walk with you and what is it we can help with?” Hicks said.

Two years ago, the church’s house recipient was Dwight Tillman, a Rock City Church volunteer who helped renovate a vacant house, all the while never knowing it would go to him and his wife.

“The house is wonderful,” said Tillman, who came to Saturday’s block party. “God gave us a place that we can retire in and not worry anymore. We’re grateful.”

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