Providing safe place for fun; Director: Lonnie...

Providing safe place for fun; Director: Lonnie Fisher runs an after-school and summer program in an old church building in Franklin Square.

In an old Civil War-era church in Franklin Square, Lonnie Fisher maintains an island of safety and hope. The Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club is a world of squeaky gym floors, pingpong tables and stuffed moose heads, a place that preserves the squeals and laughter of childhood in a neighborhood battling drugs.


Supported by the Salvation Army and United Way, the club at 215 N. Calhoun St. offers after-school educational and recreational programs to about 440 kids, most of them from the neighborhood. Presently, children from all over the city are attending an all-day camp program that costs $20 a week.

Campers swim twice a day in the indoor pool at the high school across the street. They run track and exercise on the macadam playground at the nearby elementary school. They play basketball and volleyball in the gym on the club's second floor. Once a week, they board buses to visit a state park. They are getting stronger, faster and more responsible.


Fisher, 46, has run the club for 21 years. He also teaches science and biology at the nearby Francis M. Wood Senior High School, serves as community liaison between the high school, elementary school and Boys and Girls Club, and is studying for his graduate degree in special education at Coppin State College.

A resident of Northeast Baltimore -- he and his wife Charlene have two daughters -- he maintains the fitness he developed as an offensive guard for Morgan State University in the early 1970s.

When Fisher assumed directorship of the Franklin Square program, it offered basketball and pingpong. Now, it has soccer, floor hockey, volleyball, a swim team, arts and crafts. Kids visit senior citizens and engage in neighborhood cleanups. Bible and reading classes take place in the library, which is furnished, like most of the club, by donations.

When the Boys Club became the Boys and Girls Club six years ago, Fisher had his doubts.

"I'm a male chauvinist pig," he says, laughing. "We used to go out every day and jog up to Druid Hill Park, but then things got complicated. The little girls started coming in with dresses on and sandals and it was hard to get them into physical things."

No longer. One of the first girls to join the club, Deneka Cornish, is now a summer-camp counselor. She's also the city's female shot put champion and third in the state in the 800 meter, and she plays on the city's championship volleyball team. Named a youth of the year of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Cornish plans to attend Howard University.

"Everybody loves Mr. Fisher, he's like a father figure to us, I think," she says. "When the little kids come in every day, it's 'Where's Mr. Fisher?' People who grew up in the club are always coming by to see him."

And Fisher talks about kids who have become doctors, lawyers and, best of all, good parents.


"My proudest thing here is that the boys who have families stay with their families," he says. "We have so many kids who come back with their kids. They like to show them around, show them what they used to do. All of them are taking care of their families. That's our most important thing." Ability: A varsity athlete before losing a leg in an accident, Diane Straub is going to Atlanta as a Paralympic swimmer.

Me and them.

When Diane Straub was a varsity swimmer at Ohio State University, sometimes the disabled swim team would share the pool when she went to work out.

She usually would go over and offer assistance, but she was always conscious of the hierarchy.

"Here I was, this cool, varsity athlete," the 28-year-old pediatric resident at Johns Hopkins Children's Center says.

Not long after, just days after her 20th birthday, Straub was in a motorcycle accident that resulted in the amputation of one leg. The disabled team expressed great interest in her joining them, but her attitude hadn't changed with her accident.


"Before, it was me and them," she said. "It was my own inability to adjust to what had happened."

With time, emotional and mental resilience won out, and she began training with the team.

"The mind is like a rubber band," she says. "The more you stretch it, the less it goes back to its original shape."

Straub, who has a prosthetic leg, has since become a swimming champion in the Paralympics, the equivalent of the Olympic Games for the disabled. At the Paralympics in Barcelona four years ago, she won a gold medal and set a world record. Next week, she heads to Atlanta for the 1996 Paralympic Games, where athletes from 127 nations will compete in 17 sports.

Straub admits, however, that Olympic dreams were never something she took too seriously.

"Every kid has a dream of Olympics, and it's usually a pipe dream," she says. "You really have to be a mutant freak of nature to be in the Olympics."


And athletics, even for Straub, who lettered in 11 sports in high school, are not priority one. She was aiming for a medical career before the accident, but her focus sharpened afterward.

She doesn't envision herself as a million-dollar surgeon, seeing one client a month and golfing on the weekends. "Anyone who goes into medicine for the money is a fool," she says.

The idea of helping others the way doctors helped her after the accident was a motivator. "It's like a calling," she says.

She dreams of meshing her public health and medical knowledge to create community centers for teens that provide counseling, legal and health services. Adolescent medicine, which is very much a social issue, is her field of choice.

She has volunteered at clinics, and been part of a mobile unit that distributed condoms and bleach to clean needles as a way to "lure" teens into the van for testing.

She was particularly struck by a young man who said he'd probably be shot by the time he got AIDS, so why use a condom?


"What he said was utter truth," Straub says. "They have no role models, no sense of future, no hope."

Whether it's an underprivileged teen-ager, a person with a disability, or anyone else likely to be stereotyped or ignored, Straub's focus is on realizing potential and resisting pigeonholing. "In the United States, we're so good at sexism, racism and prejudice against people with disabilities," she says. "We shouldn't try to limit them just because we're uneducated as to what their potential could be."

Pub Date: 8/04/96

Tamara Ikenberg