Hard birth for dream of city youth center

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They call themselves the Youth Dreamers, and since 2001 they have been working to open a youth center. Their dream: to reduce violence in Baltimore by giving kids a safe, fun place to go when school lets out.

The dream was born four years ago in a class discussion at the Stadium School in Waverly, after a series of shootings in the area. The students spent three years fundraising and searching for a site for their center before buying a boarded-up house a few blocks from the school.

They crafted big plans to turn the mustard-yellow building into something beautiful, a place where teens would tutor younger kids, and teach classes in pottery, cooking and typing. So when they went to a zoning hearing last fall to present their dream and encountered neighbors saying the youth center would lower property values, they were stunned.

"So many of us were crying," said Zakiyah Abdulghaffar, 14, who will be a freshman at Polytechnic Institute. "We couldn't believe it."

The Youth Dreamers won their case before the zoning board, but the neighbors' sentiments still stung. Trying to turn their hurt into something positive, they applied for - and won - a grant through the University of Maryland's civic youth center, which was inviting teens to research a question of importance to their community.

The Youth Dreamers' question: How do adults view Baltimore youth?

On a gray Friday afternoon this summer, that question brought Chris Lawson, 16, and Shelia Moser, 14, to the doorway of a brick rowhouse across the street from their youth center site. They were ready to interview an ailing neighborhood resident they know as Miss Ruth.

"Miss Ruth is sick, her back is out," her daughter, Janet Stewart, said from behind the screen.

Their faces fell, but Chris quickly rebounded, persuading Stewart to let them interview her instead.

On a street where many adults this summer have been too busy or not interested in talking to the Youth Dreamers, it was a victory.

Stewart, 54, is a 911 operator. She said she has lived on Carswell Street for three decades with her mother, Ruth Edwards. She has watched drugs change the neighborhood from "a really nice place" to a place where people live "because they can't go anywhere else." Still, she adds, "This block, it's survived a lot better than the other ones because many of the people on this block are homeowners."

What does Stewart love about the community?

"It's quiet."

What does she think of the Baltimore school system?

"I don't know if you can blame the school system for the kids roaming around on the streets. ... Most of these kids, they don't even live around here. But they're around here every single day."

When the Youth Dreamers first came around, she expected trouble to follow.

The group has 10 teens active year-round and 16 more involved during the school year in a community action class at the Stadium School, a small public middle school run by teachers and parents.

The group's "biggest dream," as relayed on a poster in their classroom at the school, is to "change the negative perspective of youth in Baltimore City." Their "worst nightmare" is that "residents will not have open minds and that they will not take our hard work, persistence, dedication and commitment into consideration."

The original Youth Dreamers have moved on to high school. For Chris, who will be a senior at City College, and others, leaving the Stadium School hasn't weakened their determination.

While they wait for their youth center to open, the teens have started a homework club and art workshops for elementary-age children at the Stadium School. The goal is to deter violence by providing children with positive teen role models, and providing teens with a reason to stay out of trouble when children are looking up to them.

Since the group's formation, there has been a City Council resolution in the teens' honor, a mayoral proclamation of May 13, 2003, as Youth Dreamer Day, and a citation from Angel Soft, which donated toilet paper for the youth center. The teens made CNN's Headline News. They found lawyers who worked pro bono and helped them form a nonprofit, and an architect who worked pro bono. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski got them $70,000 in federal funding.

A breakthrough came when the Homestead United Methodist Church, where a Youth Dreamer's mother is a trustee, agreed to sell the group its former parsonage at 1430 Carswell St. for $12,500.

The 2,040-square-foot house, with a steeply pitched roof and asymmetrical facade, is near a cul-de-sac. On the upside, it's close enough for people to park at the Stadium School.

On the downside, it has been empty for 20 years. Lead paint is peeling off the walls. The teens' architect estimates that renovations will cost $350,000. (They have raised $130,000 and are seeking a contractor's help.)

Since the street is zoned for residential use, the Youth Dreamers began to canvass the neighborhood as soon as they found the house, asking for feedback as they prepared to apply for a zoning exemption. Most was positive. To their shock, some of the people who had supported them turned out at the zoning hearing Sept. 28, 2004, to oppose the project.

The teens and their adult adviser, Kristina Berdan, who teaches the community action class, agreed to postpone the hearing so that they could convene meetings to work through neighborhood concerns.

On Oct. 30, Mark Washington, executive director of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Community Corp., wrote to the zoning board "vehemently" opposing the project. Concerns included "increased security risk and sanitation concerns," "increased potential of abandonment and urban flight," and "destabilization of a stable residential area."

The group applauds the Youth Dreamers' efforts, he wrote, and has offered to help "in finding another more suitable, less intrusive location."

The Youth Dreamers won their appeal when they returned to the zoning board Dec. 21.

In a recent interview, Washington reiterated his support for the teens' mission, but said their center will disturb the neighborhood's elderly residents.

"They want to enjoy their golden years," he said. "They want to sit on the porch and not run the risk of being disturbed by youth gatherings."

Since the zoning approval, Washington said, "for-sale signs have gone up. People are already talking about moving."

The Youth Dreamers hope that, by getting to know the residents, they will change their views. As part of their project on adult attitudes, they're interviewing Carswell Street residents about their experiences growing up and their life in the neighborhood.

In addition, the teens are doing neighborhood clean-ups most Wednesdays, offering to run errands for elderly residents and writing to City Council members asking for better lighting on their block.

One woman hollered when she saw two girls coming up her steps to ask for an interview. But when she learned who they were, she apologized profusely.

Slowly, some are coming around.

As Chris' interview with Janet Stewart neared a close, he told her that her comments would be part of an exhibit on permanent display at the youth center.

Unprompted, she turned to him and Shelia:

"I think you all have a great idea of what you want to do, and I truly hope you can achieve it. I'm just afraid a little, I have to admit. When you have young people who want to do the right thing about their lives, you always get a negative element," she said.

"I was opposed to you going in there, but I've watched you all. ... Maybe you can save some of the kids with what you want to do."

They stood up, and Chris gave her a hug.

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