House by house, family by family, LaVerne Cooper wants to rebuild the West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown as she remembers it from childhood: safe, close-knit, hard-working.
The renewal of Sandtown, a community of more than 10,000 people southwest of North and Pennsylvania avenues, has already changed her life. She became a homeowner two years ago through Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, took a job with the nonprofit group and in April was named its co-executive director.
Today Sandtown Habitat caps its third annual "blitz-build" week. The group, which is a third of the way toward its goal of rehabbing 100 vacant houses for low-income homeowners, is to dedicate a refurbished rowhouse in the 1500 block of N. Stricker St.
That happens to be the block where LaVerne Cooper, 41, roller-skated as a girl, growing up in a house that's now boarded up. It is where her father, a custodian, would put cardboard in his old shoes and buy new ones for his six children. It's where her mother would teach little LaVerne: "Manners will get you everywhere."
The new Stricker Street homeowners, Russell and Thelma Sampson, still call Ms. Cooper "Beany," her childhood nickname, as do most people in Sandtown. Mrs. Sampson used to scold her for losing her ball in their yard or singing on the street too late at night.
Now it's Ms. Cooper who does the scolding, if that's what it takes to rebuild Sandtown.
"If you commit to something, I expect to see you there and, if not, I expect a phone call," Ms. Cooper tells prospective Habitat homeowners, who must put in at least 300 hours of "sweat equity" to qualify for a house. "God placed me here for firmness and to be a motivator. You can't tell me no because I'm one of you" -- a lifelong resident, Habitat homeowner and single mother.
Anna E. Lewis, another old neighbor and new Habitat homeowner, nodded knowingly, "When she says something, she means it."
And Paul Kaminski, one of hundreds of Habitat volunteers, looked up from doing electrical work in Ms. Lewis' kitchen to add: "She keeps us all straight. She works her tail off. Nobody here knows half of what she does."
Allan Tibbels, who shares Sandtown Habitat's leadership with Ms. Cooper, views her as the embodiment of what Habitat is trying to do in a neighborhood beset by poverty, drug abuse and sometimes hopelessness: Give people the power to take control of their community and make it a decent place to live.
"LaVerne is just a confident person who is very results-oriented. She had 22 years business experience before coming to Habitat," he said. "She loves the neighborhood so deeply that she is absolutely committed to every square inch of it and every person."
Mr. Tibbels, his family and the Rev. Mark Gornik, all white suburbanites, arrived in Sandtown eight years ago, before the area became the target of "neighborhood transformation" efforts by the Enterprise Foundation and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
The newcomers slowly won their neighbors' acceptance. Mr. Gornik established New Song Community Church, which now includes a learning center, health clinic and jobs program. Mr. Tibbels set up the church-based affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International. The group uses volunteer labor, donated materials, "sweat equity" and cash grants to build housing that is sold at cost for $25,000 to $35,000, with no mortgage interest charged.
Ms. Cooper first heard about "Mr. Allan" from a niece. Mr. Tibbels, a paraplegic, cuts a distinctive figure -- a white man tooling about the streets of nearly all-black Sandtown in a wheelchair. Ms. Cooper admits she was at first suspicious of the white arrivals.
"What do they want?" wondered Ms. Cooper, a single mother raising four girls (her two daughters and two daughters of a sister who died).
One Sunday morning Ms. Cooper's two youngest children told her they wanted to go regularly to New Song church because "we like the learning about Jesus there."
"It just did something to me," Ms. Cooper said through tears. "These two little girls telling me this is where Jesus is. . . . I felt this is where God is calling me."
Opportunities arose. Ms. Cooper became a Habitat homeowner, working for a four-bedroom house on North Carey Street. When she faced losing her job as a credit collection manager unless she relocated to Florida, Habitat hired her as office manager.
Yesterday, Ms. Cooper walked the Sandtown streets jotting notes on a pink memo pad. The whack of hammers and the whine of power tools were in the air. Scores of volunteers in the 1994 Building on Faith Work Week clambered over, under, around and through 20 vacant houses, scraping, painting, sanding, insulating, wiring and making new.
Sometimes, Ms. Cooper says, she gets angry because outsiders -- the kind of people who will tell her with surprise, "You're so articulate!" -- view Sandtown as a benighted place and expect the worst of its residents.
"There are good people wherever you go in life," she said. "What I'd like to see is people stop prejudging. There are a lot of LaVernes in Sandtown."