UP NEXT ... IN THE CLEANUP POSITION At Camden Yards, an upstart maintenance company proves having a heart is good business


A caption in today's Sun Magazine misidentifies the owners of A & G Cleaning. Grace Blackstone is at left, Anita Dunham on the right.

* The Sun regrets the error.

The ballgame's over, but Anita Dunham and Grace Blackstone have their team psyched, pumped up, ready for anything.

With their empty plastic bags trailing behind them, they double-time up the ramp, jog across the mezzanine and burst into the stadium to confront a sight that would stop weaker souls in their tracks.

Forget the gorgeous city skyline beyond, the inspiring view of the green field below. Their eyes are fixed on a landscape of trash -- the trash left behind after 45,000 fans tie on the feedbag in Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

In the now-deserted stadium, every row of seats from the top of the upper deck to the VIP rows down front is ankle-deep in litter: empty beer and soda cups, peanut shells, popcorn, pizza boxes, wrappers holding half-eaten sandwiches, cups that once held french fries, trays with remnants of corn chips and salsa -- everything saturated with the odor of stale beer.

The 45 workers of A & G Cleaning don't even flinch.

Urged on by Anita and Grace -- the owners, the founders, the "A" and the "G" of A & G Cleaning -- they snap on their surgical gloves and lean into their work, the hand-picking of every bit of trash larger than a matchbox.

"Let's go, go, go, go, go," yells Grace, punctuating her words with a blast from the whistle hanging around her neck.

"They call her the Terminator," Anita says with a quiet laugh, then she calls out to the group, "Let's check behind those seats."

Soon the bags, stuffed with trash and double-knotted, are sent rolling down the steps like tumbleweeds. They are the first of 2,000 garbage-can-size bags the workers will fill with trash this night; another 250 bags will be filled with peanut shells.

It's been a year since Anita and Grace -- as they're soon called by everyone who meets them -- won the contract to provide the labor to clean Oriole Park.

As it is for most people who start their own business, their company is their dream -- and a route, they hope to financial independence.

But it is also more. For Anita and Grace, A & G Cleaning is their own social experiment, the way to prove their beliefs:

That a business with a heart can do far better than one without.

And that giving people who are poor a chance to work, and treating them with respect, even when no one else does, is at the bottom line very good business.

Already the bottom line has proven them right.

In a little more than a year these two entrepreneurs have taken an investment of just $200 and turned it into a company with a working budget well into six figures. And they did it all with a work force made up of men and women who are in many cases poor, sometimes homeless, and all hungry enough for work they are willing to pick up trash for minimum wage.

In that time, they've choregraphed the nights' work into a carefully timed routine.

And in that time they've also found themselves feeding their workers, helping them find homes, encouraging them to go back to high school and even on to college.

"You have to care about the people who work for you first," Grace says. "Without your people you're nothing."

The story of A & G is really the story of Anita Dunham and Grac Blackstone, two single, working mothers who beat the odds against them to turn the skills they learned as children and the beliefs they gained as adults into a business.

Anita, who is 29, grew up in Cherry Hill, the youngest of seven children. She remembers helping her father, who had a business cleaning bowling alleys and apartment buildings, from the time she was 10.

She had a son, Angelo, when she was 15, but stayed in school. She took college-level courses while still at Southern High and become president of the student government association.

"I was always ambitious," Anita says. "I was a 15-year-old mother, but I was not going to let that stop me. I never went on Social Services. I always worked."

After high school, she enrolled in the pre-med program at the University of Maryland. But during her second year, the Anne Arundel County Fire Department visited the university to recruit new employees.

"I was on my own and needed money. The Fire Department said you can make $17,000 a year. I jumped on it. I wanted my son to have a good life."

Anita became the first black woman firefighter in Maryland and ++ went on to become a paramedic. She is still with the Arundel Fire Department at Jessup and arranges her work for A & G around her hours at the station.

Grace, 34, was one of nine children. Her mother worked with the Internal Revenue Service and her father was with the Clark Co. in Havre de Grace, but he also had his own business that did home renovations.

"We were your basic black family, just borderline, trying to

survive between poverty and lower-middle class," she says.

Her parents sacrificed to send her from their East Baltimore home to Martin Spaulding High, a Catholic school in Severna Park. After she graduated, Grace joined the Army and became a communication systems analyst. She had risen to the rank of first lieutenant by the time she left the service. She had a child -- a daughter, Monique, who is now 12 -- during a brief marriage.

Grace was organizing an anti-drug block party in East Baltimore when she met Anita, who had heard about the event and had volunteered to help. The two became friends.

Anita persuaded Grace to train for the Fire Department. Grace completed the emergency medical technician training and took a job with the Maryland Institute of Emergency Medical Services.

They found out they shared the same dreams, to own their own businesses and to raise their children outside the city. So in late ,, 1991, they pooled their resources to buy a house together in Harford County. It was not only a place to live; it was their first corporate asset. With the $200 left over, they set out to start a cleaning business.

In February of 1992, they approached the management at Harry M. Stevens Maintenance Services Inc., which cleans stadiums and arenas around the country.

The Catonsville-based company just had won the contract to clean the entire Camden Yards stadium and it needed another company -- a subcontractor -- to hire the crew to pick up trash around the seats.

As their very first job, Anita and Grace offered to provide that labor.

"They're a multi-million dollar company and they think we're just hilarious," says Anita. "They said, 'OK, girls. How would you come up with a price to bid this contract?' It was a test."

"I said give us a couple of days and I'll tell you how much it costs to clean the stadium."

The women studied the blueprints, timed themselves moving through the length of a row of seats, called other stadium maintenance people around the country and added up the cost of all the chemicals. Within a few days they had a figure.

"We came back with the right number and it just blew them away," Grace says.

The president of Harry M. Stevens decided to give Anita and Grace a chance but divided the stadium in thirds and let two other cleaning companies try out for the contract at the same time.

On opening day, the quiet after the game was broken by shrill whistles. Into the stadium marched the crew from A & G Cleaning, led by Anita and Grace.

Inspired by military discipline, the young women had turned their work force into a platoon. They marched their little army four-abreast into the stands, where each squad peeled off in different directions and began working down the rows.

Edward Cline, deputy director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, remembers that evening.

"I hadn't seen anything like that before in my life. It may have looked a bit strange, but it was very effective."

Within two weeks A & G Cleaning had far outperformed the competitors. Because of the organizational skills of Anita and Grace, they were able to go through their sections twice as fast and with half as many people as the other companies. They won the $160,000 contract to clean the entire stadium.

"The marching janitors, that's what they call us," says Gar Bennett, who has worked with A & G since the company's first day on the job at the stadium.

"When they made us line up and march up stairs, it was an experience for me at first because they liken it to this military thing and I wasn't real, you know, into the military," he adds, laughing. "I was a little apprehensive about it. But I got with the program and I found out what it was like to have responsibility. I really appreciated that because they helped me out an awful lot."

Finding the work force is sometimes a challenge for Anita and Grace. Most of their applicants were referred to them by the local Veterans Adminstration office and local unemployment offices.

Last year the pair went through about 300 workers to find the 45 who were willing to stay.

"It's hard work and constant movement," says Anita. "Not everybody can adapt to it."

They are not afraid to hire people who are homeless. Homeless people develop complex living skills that can be used to help them fit into a work environment, the entrepreneurs say.

"Even people that live on the street are programmed," Grace says. "It takes strategy to be a bum. It takes strategy to survive. They know where to go when it's cold to stay warm. They know what time to get their food from the soup kitchen.

"You find out what their programming was before. Then you can use that to help them feel more comfortable working with a new program. We have taken some young boys who have lived on the street that haven't had any kind of education, were on drugs, and eliminated those three things out of their lives. And now they are positive and trying to do better."

One of the saddest parts of their job is teaching workers who are hungry why they have to throw away food, even food still in sealed packages.

They first realized this would be a problem one night early last year when they noticed that one of the trash pickers was beginning to fall behind. Watching him, they saw the reason.

He would stop, pick up a half-eaten hot dog from the cement floor, look around and then furtively stuff it into his mouth.

"As he was cleaning, he was eating. And collecting food and stuffing it in his clothes," Grace recalls. "He had half-full bottles of soda down his pants legs. He was walking around with big bulges of food around his waist. He was trying to pick up trash but he couldn't because he had so much stuff wrapped around him he couldn't bend over."

The two women ran up to where he was and stopped him mid-bite.

"I said, 'Don't do that. You could get sick,' " Anita says.

They took him down to their office in the basement of the stadium and as they talked, his story unfolded. He was 17 and homeless. He had lived in shelters for the past two years. He was picking up food, he said, not only for himself but for his friends at the shelter -- and for his teen-age girlfriend, who was pregnant.

"We looked at each other and said, 'Well, what are we going to do with him?' He was so hungry," Grace says.

The two women went to a nearby soup kitchen and got a bag of food -- enough for the teen-ager and his girlfriend to eat until he got his first paycheck. Then they sat down with him and explained to him why it wasn't safe to eat or take home the food he picked up off the stadium floor.

The teen-age boy worked with them through the season last year, then in the fall took a job with another company.

A problem still comes up occasionally when workers find unopened bags of food or cans of soda. "At first our people said, 'Well, if they didn't eat it and the food is good, why can't we have it?' " says Anita.

"That's where we had to explain the business to them, that other people are being paid to haul [the trash] away," says Grace.

But Anita and Grace decided that wasn't enough. Last year they worked out a deal with one of the stalls at Lexington Market to buy fried chicken at a discount. They also make snacks, coffee and sodas available for the workers.

Anita and Grace also concentrate on helping their workers develop pride in themselves and in what they do. "You can only build their esteem over time," Grace says.

They created different levels of responsibility to give their workers goals. And then they rotate responsibility so that each person who wants to can experience being a manager.

According to their contract with the stadium authority, they are allowed to pay only minimum wage, $4.25 per hour, to their workers. But the two women take money out of their own pockets to give 25-cent to 75-cent raises to their supervisors.

Once their workers begin to think of themselves as managers or supervisors, it can change their whole lives, Grace and Anita say.

"They aspire to do things, because they are now looking at themselves not as just someone who just slings a mop," says Grace. "They are looking at themselves and saying, 'OK, now I have now learned how to manage people.' "

They support those aspirations. They helped former worker George Randall enroll in a business college course at the University of Maryland, and encouraged him when he had a chance for a better-paying job with another company.

They study each worker to find out what his skills, strengths and weaknesses are. When they noticed one worker was slow at picking up the trash, they put him to work running a buffer so that his slow, methodical pace matched his job.

On paydays, some of the workers bring their whole families to introduce them to Anita and Grace.

"It's like they're saying, 'Well, you know, I might do this type of work and I might work for minimum wage, but I still got pride. I got a family,' " says Grace.

"We're not dealing with people who are out here to just eat off the system. They want to work."

Soon after they started at the stadium, the two women realized they needed to help some of their employees with their appearance.

"How can you say to people who can barely eat and survive, go get a haircut and get some clothes? So we asked inside the group who cut hair, who wanted to be the company barber. For a quarter everybody would get their hair cut. And the money supported the guy who was the barber because it helped him get clippers or whatever he needed."

Anita and Grace give a lot of credit for their success to the management of Harry M. Stevens. "I can't stop saying how much Harry M. Stevens has helped us because they gave us a chance," says Anita.

But Roland Hayden, the vice president of Harry M. Stevens, turns the compliments back on them.

"I'm not sure whether it's a miracle story," he says, "or just an example of two intelligent people being successful by working extremely hard, being aggressive and innovative."

During the winter months Anita and Grace kept the company growing by adding several apartment complexes and the Urban Services headquarters on St. Paul Street to their list of clients.

Now in their second season at Camden Yards, they've turned to bigger endeavors.

Grace, who left her job at the Maryland Institute of Emergency Medical Services to work full time with A & G Cleaning, hopes to teach her methods of organization and discipline to other companies.

Anita's dreams are even bigger: creating a community for their workers, a village of houses rehabbed and lived in by formerly homeless people.

If these ideas seem high-flying, so did their dreams in the past.

And they have realized every one of them.

LINDA LOWE MORRIS is a writer with The Sun. TED SHELSBY, a Sun business reporter, contributed to this article.

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