Summer activities rolling to youths on 'fun wagons'


As a crowd of children cheered her on, a woman tried to smash a bottle against brightly painted U-Haul-style trailers. After several thumps, the bottle broke, spraying onlookers.

And the city fathers said the fun could begin.

Yesterday's ceremony in Druid Hill Park sent the five trailers, known as "fun wagons," into Baltimore's neighborhoods carrying games, toys and athletic equipment for the first time since 1988, when the city ran out of money to operate them.

"We just try to give them something to occupy their minds," said Oscar Harrell, who will coordinate the wagons for the city Department of Recreation and Parks in response to residents' requests.

Summer vacation sometimes leaves children with too much idle time, Mr. Harrell said, time that children might be tempted to spend on "devious acts like throwing bottles" or using drugs.

Stacked inside the wagons are board games, balls and toys. A basketball hoop on one side of each wagon can be flipped up to permit a volleyball net to be hooked to its other side.

"Personally, I feel I'm doing a service that the city of Baltimore deserves. All these kids deserve a shot. If they say no to drugs, what can they say yes to?" said Mr. Harrell, who remembers the fun wagons from his childhood.

"The program was very important to my neighborhood. We were a neighborhood without a recreation center," he said.

The wagons, which first hit the streets in 1967, are the brainchild of Virginia S. Baker, who directs the recreation department's Adventures in Fun program.

While driving through the city, she noticed that many neighborhoods did not have recreation centers, parks or playgrounds, she said. So she designed a mobile recreation center to bring activities to the children.

"As I looked around the city, I saw those poor little kids in need of some recreation. I felt that if we were doing our best, our kids would be so busy all summer," Ms. Baker said.

At first, there were five wagons in operation, but three years ago the city cut from the budget the $50,000 to operate them.

Since then, the recreation department has received about 1,200 phone calls from residents asking that the wagons roll again, Ms. Baker said.

At the ceremony yesterday -- during which Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was introduced to the strains of his campaign theme song -- one of the wagons was dedicated to Russell "Ham" Neal, who worked with the fun wagons and set up other neighborhood programs for children until he retired in 1989. A second wagon was named for Ms. Baker.

Where to call

To have the fun wagon visit your neighborhood, call 375-7075.

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