Mr. Ben finds a way when it means helping children


When it's for the kids, Benjamin Washington Jr. is a master at making a way out of "no way."

As director of the Harlem Park Recreation Center in West Baltimore, he is challenged with raising money for programs in a poor area and keeping children off the streets in the high-crime, low-income community that surrounds the center.

Outside the dark red brick building in the 700 block of N. Calhoun St., boarded-up buildings dot the landscape and sirens frequently wail. Inside, the man who residents affectionately call "Mr. Ben" has created a haven for neighborhood children interested in everything from arts and crafts to video production -- all on a shoestring budget.

"If there is an activity that the kids want and we don't have it, we'll try to figure out how to do it," Mr. Washington said. "If it's what the kids want, we will get it."

Funding for the city's 69 recreation centers actually is up slightly this year -- to $7.1 million from last year's $7 million. But the money from the city's Department of Recreation and Parks goes for staff salaries, utilities and building repairs, not programs for the children.

Theoretically, each rec center finances its activities through program fees collected from parents, but in low-income areas such as Harlem Park, directors often have to rely on their own ingenuity.

Mr. Washington said rentals of the center for events and money collected from an annual summer camp usually net about $1,200 a year for programs. With the 600 children who visit the rec center weekly, that works out to about $2 a child. Hardly enough, Mr. Washington said, to fund the 20 activities the center offers.

"That's why anything I can get my hands on I grab it," said Mr. Washington, who grew up in Harlem Park. "We try to get the kids to bring in a dollar here or a dollar there.

"These days you have to make do with less so we make do."

By contrast, program fees at Mount Royal Recreation Center in Bolton Hill bring in about $4,500 a month, said Donna Hooper, the Mount Royal director. That's more than double what Mr. Washington collects in a year.

Based on the most recent census information available, the average household income in Harlem Park is $11,462, and 32 percent of the residents receive some form of public assistance.

But Mr. Washington is quick to acknowledge that the people in his community do what they can. Talent shows, bake sales and festivals put on to raise money are well-attended. Mr. Washington's church provides a bus to take the center's football team to games. Parents volunteer to help Mr. Washington and his staff, which includes two full-time employees and a part-timer, and often dip into their own pockets for pizza parties and snowball treats.

A local merchant may be tapped to offer a "scholarship" to a child who cannot afford to pay. Several corporations have donated money and sports equipment.

To the children at the center, money worries are for grown-ups. What matters most to them is having a place to play, do arts and crafts, or just hang out with friends, the children said.

On the center's scuffed linoleum floor, a group of knobby-kneed little boys tried to kick a worn soccer ball between orange traffic cones that represented the goal line. They maneuvered around the floor's chipped tiles as easily as if they were on a grassy field.

"It's fun," said Jahiri Gunthorpe, 9, who plays soccer and runs track, along with his twin brother Rafiq. "We get to play sports and go on trips and stuff."

Eric Alston volunteers at the center and brings his three children. He said he sees it as a positive alternative to children hanging out on inner city streets.

"If there wasn't a rec center they would be out there on the corners," Mr. Alston said. "We have to do something to keep them from the drug dealers."

Carlise Stanley said she can't keep her son Bruce, 12, away from the center. Even though they have moved to another area, she said, Bruce still comes to the center.

"He'd rather come here than go to the center around our way," Ms. Stanley said. "The staff here is great, and I worry less about him knowing that he is here."

On a sweltering afternoon, residents stood near the recreation center as several police cars screeched to a halt across the street. Children on their way into the center stopped to watch as officers swarmed on a house.

"There's something going on out here," Mr. Washington told the children as he gently steered them inside the building. "But there is something more interesting going on inside."

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