Haven for all to call home Families: The House of Mercy offers after-school care and other services in its temporary home. If enough money is raised to build a community center, more family programs will be added.


It's Sister Margaret Downing's dream:

Poppleton, a poor community only a dozen blocks from the $25 box seats and $3.25 hot dogs at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, will get its new multipurpose community center, House of Mercy, to protect and encourage its families.

"We are a family center in development," said Sister Margaret. "We now have an after-school care service and other programs in a temporary place.

"The children in our neighborhood encounter drug solicitation regularly; there are simply no places for them to play together safely. We need a permanent home."

She and several other Sisters of Mercy first talked about the dream with area residents in 1992. The sisters and others incorporated. They bought a boarded-up former funeral home at 901 Hollins St., but it proved too unstable to renovate so a new structure is needed.

The board of trustees began the House of Mercy in a temporary home, at St. Peter The Apostle Christian Life Center at 13 S. Poppleton St., next to St. Peter's Church, catty-corner to the proposed center.

The current program, aided by parent and teacher Sharon Savage, offers after-school care for 25 elementary pupils ages 7 to 10. It recruits adults to mentor the children and take them on field trips. It has paid for adult education so a few residents can get jobs as day care providers.

Services would be expanded and new ones added if the fund raising is successful.

For weeks on end during the last General Assembly, Sister Margaret sweet-talked legislators, pleading for a $500,000 bond bill and getting $250,000. The sisters and corporate donors matched that and added some. Pro bono architectural, legal and other work has helped.

With the leadership of people such as William and Kathleen Wycoff, co-presidents of the fund drive, Mercy's $1 million campaign has raised $600,000.

"The other $400,000 is a tough sell in the corporate community," said William Wycoff, president of Crestar Bank in Maryland, among the companies supplying funds. "There are other good causes. Corporate funds are shrinking. We're knocking on a lot of doors -- foundations and corporations."

Sister Margaret, executive director of what she describes as a nonreligious nonprofit, said she "ideally" hopes to raze the funeral home by May and begin construction next summer.

Board members plan a three-story building of 8,000 square feet at Poppleton and Hollins streets. If money is raised, it could open in late winter or spring of 1998.

The structure would reprise history at the southwest Baltimore location. The sisters came from Ireland via Pittsburgh in 1855 and soon started a House of Mercy at 13 S. Poppleton St. as a place of "protection for distressed women of good character."

The Poppleton area, which some residents call Southwest Baltimore, is described as stretching from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Gilmor Street and from Saratoga to Pratt streets.

Poppleton has 1,571 households -- 897 headed by females, 63 by males, according to a Morgan State University study. About 85 ** percent of residents are black. Renters occupy 80 percent of houses; the rest are owners. About 33 percent of its high school students drop out.

Sister Margaret has had a loyal sidekick in Savage, a neighborhood resident since 1965, a mother of eight and the only staffer of House of Mercy at the makeshift program in the Christian Life building. Mothers, teen-agers and other sisters volunteer.

Savage, who like Sister Margaret is counselor, disciplinarian and friend to the students, said, "There's space here, but not enough. We have a waiting list. We need our own building, a family center for all.

"We want to teach skills like budgeting, parenting skills," she said, and be able to offer "day care for working families, routine health screening, a place for community meetings and kids to play -- a safe haven for all."

The after-school program, in its second year, has won praise. Helen Resop, principal of nearby James McHenry Elementary School, said the after-school care has produced dramatic results. Sixteen students are on the McHenry honor roll or the merit roll this year. Fifteen have missed no classes, others just a few.

"It's phenomenal," said Resop. "It's made an academic difference, but it's also changed the children's behavior and attitudes and how they treat one another. It's a very nurturing environment."

She credits Savage, also a daily school volunteer, as a valuable link that makes the program for McHenry pupils work.

"Sharon is really wonderful; she sees the children in our schools and follows up at the House of Mercy."

It's a family proposition. Savage's husband, William, is maintenance manager at St. Peter's and also volunteers. Their elder children have helped at the House; some are pupils.

Sister Margaret, 49, a teacher trained in school psychology, takes a strict but loving approach from about 2: 45 p.m. to 5: 15 p.m. Monday through Friday. The 25 students -- 20 black and five white -- walk from McHenry to the life center after school.

The first hour is homework supervision and academic tutorials. The second period is playtime in a nearby park; interaction is closely watched. The last period is board games, arts and crafts, and discussions.

Preventing violent behavior by promoting alternatives is primary. Calling someone else's mother a bad name is one sure way to start a fight," Sister Margaret said. "The name-calling itself is a form of violence.

"We aim for three things," she said. "The ability to resolve conflicts. The raising of self-esteem. Peer refusal skills -- learning how to say no to bad things."

Just as dramatically as academic success rose, fighting and other forms of aggression fell. Volunteers credit Sister Margaret's insistence on conflict resolution at an early age.

"When we started," said Sister Margaret, "we once counted 54 incidents of aggressive behavior -- hitting, shoving, name-calling in just 10 minutes. One boy was responsible for 30 of them. By the end of our year, we had reduced that to 12 incidents."

A party at the center last week was a joyous mixture of sights, sounds, presents, lighted tree, Christmas decorations, pizzas, cookies, soda, laughs and no obvious fighting.

"I like to come here," said Tookia Ames, a 10-year-old fifth-grader. "I get more out of my learning. I get help with homework from the volunteers."

In an aside, Kathleen Wycoff, president of a consulting firm and frequent volunteer, asked: "What will happen to these kids if they don't get this kind of help? Will they later pull out a gun or knife to settle their differences?"

Pub Date: 12/25/96

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