Help for Harford's 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.

"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 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," Hammond said. "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.

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," she said.


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.