Filling a void Bright Lights: Youth center run by Cynthia and Sitawi Jahi shows dedication, ingenuity.


QUIETLY, THE FORMERLY city-run Rognel Heights Recreation Center has been transformed into a safe haven for 300 chil- dren, providing them a place before and after school and during the summer for sports, hot meals and help with homework.

Sitawi and Cynthia Jahi have used ingenuity, creativity and lots of sweat equity to keep the center running. It has been difficult to tap traditional sources for grants. As a result, much of their $100,000 annual budget is raised by selling such items as pizzas and T-shirts, and collecting modest fees from center users.

It's easy to miss the center, tucked behind Rognel Heights Elementary and Middle Schools near Leakin Park and the Edmondson Village Shopping Center. But area residents praise it for providing a warm, safe place for restless West Baltimore youth. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke hails it: "They've done a wonderful job and they are good examples" of the types of private initiatives the city needs to help youths.

Five years ago, due to city budget cuts, the center was about to be abandoned when a coalition came to the rescue. But members of the coalition gradually disappeared as problems with the center's building mounted, including a broken furnace and leaky roof. The Jahis remained, renamed it the Rognel Heights Cultural Center and, eventually, convinced the city to make repairs. But they were told to find operating funds elsewhere.

The husband and wife are long-time community activists -- she has run a dance company and he worked as a youth leader for the Urban League. During the school year, they provide before- and after-school care and Saturday programs. No child is turned away; parents may provide services like cooking and cleaning in lieu of payment.

The Jahis closely monitor the progress of students at the adjoining Rognel Heights Elementary; those who are disruptive do not participate in after-school sports programs -- a keen incentive for the many aspiring Michael Jordans.

Students struggling to read and solve math problems receive small-group tutoring; no one plays until homework is checked.

Their 11-week summer camp includes tutoring, culture classes, tennis, swimming and hiking. There also are field trips to such places as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Students returned to school from camp this fall with two months of educational enrichment, not a summer lost to idleness. The former principal of Rognel Heights Elementary credits the Jahis' program with the school's gains on the state school assessment test.

If the Jahis have their way, this quiet little neighborhood program will add several satellite centers. First on the list: A site near Alexander Hamilton Elementary School in the nearby Rosemont neighborhood.

Here's hoping their can-do spirit catches on and spreads throughout Baltimore.

Bright Lights will spotlight people who make a real difference in the quality of life in the Baltimore metropolitan area. It will appear periodically in these columns of the editorial page.

Pub Date: 12/24/97

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