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Groups rejoice in success of Nehemiah project Donors helped put up new homes for the poor in W. Balto.


When the Rev. Robert M. Kearns began asking religious leaders for money to build 300 homes in a poor West Baltimore neighborhood, his pitch emphasized the likely return on their investment.

Donating dollars to the Nehemiah project could be good for business, he said. It could mean better employer-employee relations, perhaps new parishioners, certainly a stronger, more viable city.

One by one, the groups signed on -- from synagogues in Northwest Baltimore to religious orders in Frederick and Philadelphia, from black city churches to the Catholic and Episcopal dioceses.

They pledged $2.2 million, capital and commitment that leveraged millions more in federal, state and city dollars.

Yesterday, within earshot of whining drills, pounding hammers and rumbling cranes, many of those 40 religious organizations gathered to celebrate the fruits of their investment. They returned to the North Fremont Avenue church where, in March 1989, organizers of the project announced plans to transform a community ravaged by poverty, crime and waste -- plans to "rise up and build," as the prophet Nehemiah had urged.

"It was a struggle to get all the diverse parts of the community together," recalled the Rev. Sidney Daniels, one of the founding members of BUILD, the church-based community group that first began pushing for the Nehemiah project in 1986. "Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, black and white, and of course the business community. I get teary-eyed when I see this. That's what America is all about, and we forget that."

There, in the serenity of St. Peter Claver Church, the religious and community leaders received thanks for believing in a dream, and, as the Rev. Vernon Dobson said, for "making desert places blossom like a rose."

They heard from Sherise Yow and Jennifer Coates, two of the new homeowners whose hopes and hard work will shape the future of these communities.

"I see nothing but the bright orange sunset ahead of me," said Ms. Coates, a working mother who decided to return to the city after living in Woodlawn. "I want to thank you for giving my son and I an opportunity of a lifetime."

Already, 175 of the 300 Nehemiah houses have been completed, with the rest to be finished by the end of the year. All of the homes in Sandtown-Winchester and Penn North have been sold.

Similar projects, offering 178 more homes, are planned for Cherry Hill in South Baltimore and the Oliver-Old Town areas of East Baltimore.

When Father Kearns set out to raise money in the religious community, he realized he had to do more than sell a worthy cause.

He had to show that the payoff would be good. "We were trying to operate out of their self-interest and they saw it," said the 56-year-old Josephite priest.

From the pulpit of his church, Father Kearns reminded the crowd yesterday that "no one of us could do it alone." Not the Enterprise Foundation, which developed the project; not Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, which lobbied the religious community for the initial dollars; not the public officials who secured the financing and low-interest loans to enable residents to buy the homes.

Together they have created an opportunity for people "to truly own their own lives and their communities," said Father Kearns, who has ministered in the neighborhood for nine years.

Fannie A. Hill, a 50-year-old dietary secretary, learned about the Nehemiah project from the chaplain at St. Joseph Hospital, where she has worked for nearly 19 years.

"It was a blessing to me," said Ms. Hill, whose employer was among the Catholic hospitals in the Baltimore area that lent the $2.2 million to the venture. "I've been praying for this a long time. This is my home . . . my dream come true."

Now, the dreams of individuals must be transformed into the dreams of a community.

With the construction phase of the project nearly complete, another kind of building is under way.

Enterprise workers are schooling new residents in the responsibilities of homeownership -- caring for a lawn, designing a household budget, choosing the right window treatments.

A community organizer from BUILD is working in the five local elementary schools to increase the volunteer corps of parents. Three playgrounds are undergoing renovation. Gardens are being planted in 24 lots selected as community plots. Residents are being trained as sanitation inspectors so they can patrol their neighborhoods and protect against dumping.

Youngsters being trained in the building trades are working on Nehemiah construction sites. A city pilot project aimed at improving health care for pregnant women is hiring neighborhood residents as health advocates. Meetings with the police are planned in an effort to establish a community policing initiative in the neighborhoods.

These are all part of the transformation process, attempts to renew a neighborhood scarred by poverty, crime and vacant houses by capitalizing on the stake these new homeowners have in the area. The residents, old and new, have been involved in the planning.

"If you're buying a house in Sandtown-Winchester, you are buying into owning the neighborhood, as well as owning the house," said Pat Costigan, who is spearheading the Enterprise Foundation's neighborhood transformation efforts.

"That is the kind of commitment and spirit we hope this partnership puts in motion, that all of the residents in the community will take up the responsibility."

The plan is an ambitious one. Of the 4,000 housing units in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, about 1,500 have either been renovated, revitalized or built anew. Much work is left to be done, perhaps the most difficult work.

"We have come to the end of the beginning," said Father Kearns. "That's the tough task now. We have to build on the momentum to move ahead on this and be realistic. The tough, most difficult days are ahead on this. I know the BUILD organization will stay with it. I think Enterprise will. I hope the city will stay with it."

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