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Foundation is living large

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It wasn't James Piper Bond's old-Baltimore name that lured Ravens coach Brian Billick onto the board of the Living Classrooms Foundation. It was a fateful combination of Bond's moxie, the arrest of Ray Lewis and one unusually large wooden chair.

Billick and his wife, Kim, were looking for an organization to support, and many were looking to sign them up, too. But on a chance visit to the Living Classrooms' waterfront campus in Fells Point to speak to another group, Billick found Bond, the president, steering him through the carpentry shop where young men in trouble with the law - men whose lives resembled those of some of his players - carve a future in wood.

A few weeks later, Billick found himself ordering a "Fells Point chair" from the carpentry program. Taking to heart a comment from Kim Billick that the 6-foot-5-inch, 230-pound coach never met a chair he didn't break, the young men fashioned an oversized version: extra-long, reinforced, complete with a stool for the coach's long legs. They christened it "the Billick chair."

Another power player, sold.

Born modestly 15 years ago as the Lady Maryland Foundation with one asset - the ship itself - and 100 students, Living Classrooms has grown today to a nonprofit powerhouse that runs some 35 programs, on an $8.5 million budget that has doubled in size in little more than a year. Its programs range from maritime museums to training for construction workers. It runs programs for about 50,000 young people a year, ranging from the learning disabled to the exceptionally gifted.

Networking and reputation

Its success is both a case study in Baltimore networking and a reflection of how a good reputation, powerful friends and the right social issue can boost the fortunes of a nonprofit - just as scandal and lack of fund-raising acumen can sink them.

Billick is but one local luminary on Living Classrooms' 48-member star-studded board of trustees. It boasts names like Rouse, Schaefer and Schmoke, along with First Mariner Bank Chairman Ed Hale and state Sen. Barbara Hoffman, to name only a few. Joseph Galli, president of online giant Amazon.com, sits on the board all the way from Seattle.

When retired T. Rowe Price chief executive George Collins - another board member - decided to leave his job to build a racing boat and team called Chessie Racing for the Whitbread Round the World Race, Living Classrooms later ended up with the boat.

As it rapidly expands, Living Classrooms has started to resemble an entrepreneurial business - taking on ventures once run by for-profit companies.

This year alone, the foundation launched programs to train city and Baltimore County students for the MSPAP test aboard the Constellation; to train high-school graduates for laboratory jobs; and a "workforce development center," designed to provide five-year monitoring of graduates of foundation programs in the work world, with contacts and services documented with the precision of business goals.

It manages the Patriots of Fort McHenry; the Constellation; the Baltimore Maritime Museum, which operates three historic ships and a lighthouse; and the National Historic Seaport, a string of tourist sites around the Inner Harbor. It took over formerly for-profit ventures such as the Inner Harbor paddleboats and the Harbor Shuttle, naming it Seaport Taxi. The move paid off during the recent OpSail 2000 - the organization estimates it will have made 50 percent more than the Harbor Shuttle made a year ago in June on the Seaport Taxi alone.

The plans are so ambitious they caused billionaire philanthropist George Soros - whose international currency speculation has moved the fortunes of nations - to quip to Bond on a recent visit: "It's a real estate empire you're building."

Some of that arises from the extraordinary family connections of the group's leaders.

The organization's president is Gilman graduate James Piper Bond - the same Bond family for whom Bond Street is named, the same Piper family that started the law firm Piper & Marbury and the real estate firm O'Conor, Piper and Flynn. The group's senior vice president for development is Parker Rockefeller - yes, one of those Rockefellers.

And some of it arises from the savvy persistence of Bond, who always looks as if he has just returned from a brisk sail around the bay, wearing a uniform of khakis, oxford shirt and a Living Classrooms fleece vest. His favorite expression? "No worries."

"James latches on to you and you can't get rid of him," Billick said. "And I mean that in an affectionate way."

A slow start

It wasn't always that way. In the beginning, Bond says, educators and potential donors looked on the nonprofit as little more than a place where kids could get an afternoon on the water.

"People used to say, 'That's a nice field trip, James,'" he said. "But this is not just a field trip. This is an extension of school."

As if to prove the point, Bond gestured around the Fells Point campus on a recent afternoon. It was humming with young people. In a waterway at the edge of the property, young men on juvenile probation in the "Fresh Start" job skills program - the program Billick first saw - were learning to row skiffs, which they would eventually learn to build.

One of the youths, a strapping 17-year-old named Reyaud who wore jeans and a life jacket, said he hoped the Living Classrooms experience would lead him to college at Morgan State University and a job as a pathologist. After a drug conviction, he'd asked his probation officer to place him in Fresh Start.

"I'm going to get a good job," Reyaud declared. "I don't have no more time for the streets."

Living Classrooms gathered powerful friends early on. They came from connections at McDonogh School, where Lady Maryland founder G. Dennis O'Brien was a teacher, and where the son of then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer's press secretary was a student.

That got O'Brien into the Baltimore City Council to propose his vision for the program and ask for support. The hearing wasn't going well, and O'Brien got visibly angry. It was just the kind of thing do-it-now Schaefer loved, O'Brien said. "The mayor said, 'That's what I like. We're gonna help this guy.'

"And that was it. Every time they had a problem that had to do with kids or the waterfront, they would throw it at us," O'Brien said. "We would do it right, do it on time, and we would keep getting more jobs."

Gradually, educational institutions became clients. Several years ago, an advisory board member of the Center for Talented Youth at the Johns Hopkins University met Bond through another nonprofit board.

That led to the center's contract with Living Classrooms for four courses each summer for gifted students from across the country - courses that have come to be among the center's most popular, said Stephen Gessner, the center's director of programs.

The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program training started several years ago when the Baltimore County school system approached the organization, hoping to combine its own curriculum for fourth- and fifth-graders with the hands-on facilities at Living Classrooms.

"It gives us an incredible real-world experience for our kids," said Linda Cassell, coordinator for county schools where more than half the children receive free and reduced-price lunches. "Many of the kids we send have never been to Baltimore City, much less on a boat."

Programs gain attention

The Fresh Start program for juvenile offenders on probation has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor three years in a row as one of the most effective in the country.

The recognition has produced a steady stream of contracts and private contributions. The price of serving on the illustrious board is high - members are expected to contribute $5,000 to $10,000 a year, said O'Brien, who remains a trustee.

Some of them do much more. Board chairman James Flick, president and chief executive officer of Dome Corp., has been part of Living Classrooms since the beginning.

His daughter, Elizabeth, who died in a camping accident at the age of 13, had been O'Brien's student.

Flick and his wife set up a foundation for their daughter, paying for parts of the Lady Maryland in Elizabeth's memory while her classmates helped work on the boat.

Three years ago, Flick and his wife helped pay for a 75-foot-tall "Learning Tower" on the Living Classrooms campus, dedicated to Elizabeth and to developer James Rouse, whose family paid for the rest. Students use the tower to learn about weather conditions, and for interactive lessons in math and science.

Despite his personal connections - and the connections of others who have kept Living Classrooms afloat - Flick says it is the passion and savvy of the people who work there that have powered the organization.

"The connections obviously help," Flick said. "But I think it's their enthusiasm, it's their energy, it's their imagination. The connections may get you a turn at bat, but you've still got to hit the ball and score."

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