Getting help to rural poor


Charlie Keithley ambled into Patricia Hammond's computer room at the Mason-Dixon Community Services offices in southern York County, Pa., on a recent cold, clear afternoon and settled down to a red-sugar-sparkly cookie.

Between bites, the 10-year-old with buzzed blond hair and mischievous eyes said that if he didn't come to this after-school program for moderate- to low-income kids, he would "roam around Delta," the tiny town where he lives with his dad and grandmother.

He could go all the way to Bel Air if he wanted, he said with a certain nod. His schoolmates Tiffany Carraway and Kaitlyn Pritt, sitting across from him, rolled their eyes.

It used to be that residents in need along the rural border of Pennsylvania and Maryland had to travel to Bel Air or York, an hour's drive away, for help with food or fuel.

After-school programs were unheard of.

Then Mason-Dixon Community Services came to town, intent on bringing services to residents of Delta, which shares the state line, Main Street and a volunteer fire company with next-door neighbor Cardiff.

This year, the agency turns 25, and its size and mission have grown to serve not only families in Delta, but also Cardiff and the nearby northern Harford communities of Pylesville, Whiteford and Street.

And Mason-Dixon is widening its work with kids in hopes of intervening in the cycle of poverty that now turns up the children and grandchildren of some of the first families Mason-Dixon volunteers saw, said Hammond, who runs the after-school program and the Street office.

"We never turn anyone away the first time who asks for food," said Barbara Richardson, executive director. People may come in for food, but they often find a connection to other aid through the agency, which has no full-time staffers and a budget of less than $200,000.

"It's amazing how the community rallies around us," Richardson said, naming off the little miracles that buoy staffers and volunteers: the Christmas Eve cash donation; the stranger at the door bearing bicycles and skateboards; and most recently, a 200-coat donation, collected and cleaned by two Dublin Elementary School fifth-graders.

"They never hesitate, which is great," said Hammond, director of the Highland and Delta offices. "I almost don't even have to pick up the phone. There's always someone calling, saying 'What do you need this month?'"

The Delta-Cardiff community (population 740 on the Pennsylvania side, slightly fewer in Cardiff) is the kind of place where you turn on one street, and you're in Cardiff; go a few blocks, and you're in Delta.

A mix of mainly clapboard two-story homes sidle up to the road and to each other. Some have freshly painted gingerbread trim; others have boards across the windows.

Though poverty figures in York and Harford counties show less than 10 percent of Delta-Cardiff residents living below the poverty line, Hammond said she has seen estimates that 1,500 families in the area qualify for aid.

Mason-Dixon's volunteers pack about 200 food baskets a month from the two offices' neatly arranged food pantries, she said, though they would like to do more.

Some residents of Delta-Cardiff are descendants of generations of Welsh slate-cutters, who came from the British Isles as early as the 1730s to work the green marble and slate quarries outside of town, according to local histories of the area.

After the quarries closed in the early 20th century, the laborers went to work on farms whose fields roll out in all directions along the Pennsylvania-Maryland state line. As more farmland has turned to growing houses instead of crops, however, those agricultural jobs are also disappearing.

Many residents now are self-employed laborers in construction or related industries, Hammond said.

Mason-Dixon today is a far cry from the agency's beginnings in a local church basement, said its founder, Christa Fabian.

Finding families needing fuel and food help was a challenge, she said.

"We had to go door to door because we did not know who was eligible."

In many cases, the rural families didn't know either. "It took time for people to recognize what we were all about," Fabian said.

Over the years, the programs grew to encompass case management, and substance and domestic abuse services.

And now they've added the programs focusing on children and teens: summer camp and sports scholarships, a health fair and family fun walk to fight smoking, a mentoring program at North Harford Middle School.

And there's the after-school program at the Peach Bottom Township Recreation Center, down the hill and behind the old red-brick Rehoboth Welsh Church.

Charlie and his nine schoolmates come by bicycle or school bus to work on computers, do crafts and get homework help from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. On Fridays, they sometimes enjoy popcorn and a movie.

Hammond also takes them on field trips.

After the ice melts and the weather warms, they hope to go to the Delta Star, the weekly paper that comes to local homes by mail for $13 a year.

When it's time for the children to go, the parents of kids who walk home often get a call from Hammond, letting them know they're on their way.

As Hammond drives down Main Street to Cardiff, where she and her family own a century-old Victorian, she's still keeping an eye on her charges, especially Tiffany, 12, and her younger sister, who like to linger on the walk home.

"By the time I get up to my car and get to the corner, they're still dilly-dallying, and I say, 'Girls, get going,'" Hammond said with a smile.

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