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Hope in lacrosse, for now

The Baltimore Sun

Hope linked to lacrosse Brenda Santiago is running late. Her lacrosse game with the Pacas has started, but first she must serve up a meal of rice and beans - with salad and sliced apples - she has made for two young brothers. She leaves her North Luzerne Avenue home only after a friend of her mother agrees to watch the boys.

Outfitted smartly in red jersey and blue skirt, Santiago arrives breathlessly at Patterson Park in the first half, grateful just to have made the trip. The game is a reprieve from another frenetic day.

"Lacrosse," she says, "takes the stress off my back. I have a lot of responsibilities."

Santiago, a seventh-grader at William Paca Elementary, is 13.

This is life in East Baltimore and life for the Pacas, a lacrosse team for girls from five city middle schools and Paca. It is the only middle school lacrosse team of its kind in the city, a team created in 2002 by Leigh McDonald Hall, its coach.

But soon there may be no such reprieves from the daily routine for Santiago or the other Pacas. Barring last-minute intervention, tomorrow's game at Friends School will mark the passing of a program that has steered at least a handful of girls away from despair, drugs, gangs and apathy.

For seven years, Hall has delivered life lessons and lacrosse in equal doses to her team of mostly pre-teen girls, trying to keep them off the streets of East Baltimore. This year, she decided to discontinue the program because she doesn't have enough involved parents, committed kids or grass-roots helpers who can pitch in on a regular basis.

Hall's program has had its share of successes and failures. In the past four years, the Pacas have sent five alumni to City College High and another to Digital Harbor. Rockiea Jones, who lives near Paca but travels 55 minutes on two buses twice a day to attend Francis Scott Key Middle, is expected to go to City next year. More are on the way, Hall says.

These girls are part of a small fraternity that has used lacrosse to widen their horizons, to find a way out of the inner-city doldrums and to achieve a better future.

Audrey James has two daughters - Audrey Lewis, 13, and Shelley Lewis, 11 - who play for the Pacas. One of the few parents who come to games or practice, James doesn't like to think about the Pacas folding.

"These kids wouldn't have anything," James, 38, said. "They'd just be left out on the streets with nothing to do. ... All these girls want to do out here is fight."

Ryan Coleman knows the territory. He runs a mentoring program at City College High and helps coach Kendra Ausby find promising lacrosse players.

"I've been to their houses," Coleman said. "It's devastating. Almost no hope. One girl, the block she lived on, it was the only house on this block. Everything else was boarded up. Another girl, there were 15 people living in her house. ... In those neighborhoods, it's about survival."

According to The Sun's crime database, there were seven homicides within a four block radius of Paca Elementary, at 200 N. Lakewood Ave., in 2007. Says Santiago: "It's dangerous. People get shot on the corner where I live."

What happens without the Pacas?

"Basically what always happens," Coleman said. "Those kids are going to be lost by the wayside."

Not all Pacas make it to a better school anyway. One of the best athletes to play for Hall was accepted at City, but when her mother couldn't complete the necessary paperwork, the girl lost her place, attended two different schools and finally dropped out.

Hall's job is as much social work as coaching. It's not uncommon for her to drive around East Baltimore in her SUV hunting players to take to practice. Once, she picked up two players at their door, per the mother's request, after a neighborhood gunfight.

Hall offers a mix of encouragement and discipline to her girls. She phones players regularly to make sure they know about practice and games - she distributes a schedule at the start of the year, too - but still has trouble getting them to Patterson Park.

Sometimes she has trouble after they get there, too. This season, she dismissed two girls from the team for rude and disrespectful behavior. When the two girls showed up recently and again were disrespectful, Hall chased them off the field in the middle of a game.

Nevertheless, Hall's overriding mission is to expose her girls to lacrosse and a different way of life with the hope of college.

"She has more dedication and love to give to those kids than I've known anyone give to kids who weren't related to them," said Sue Heether, a volunteer who has assisted Hall the past five years, even after being appointed coach of the U.S. Women's National Team in 2005. (Heether also owns Sports Her Way and has supplied much of the Pacas' equipment either free of charge or at reduced rates.)

"She's got this unending level of trust and desire to see them succeed that never quits. The worst day in the world, she doesn't give up on them. Day in, day out, she gets beaten up, disrespected, yelled at, and she shows up the next day with hope."

Hall, 44, grew up near Hereford, went to Garrison Forest School, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's nursing school. She played field hockey and lacrosse at Penn, reaching the Final Four in lacrosse.

A separated mother of two teenage children (Poppy is a freshman at Washington and Lee University, Mac a freshman at St. Paul's School), Hall works as a part-time physical education teacher and assistant varsity field hockey coach at Garrison Forest.

She has been an advocate of helping inner-city girls ever since hearing a report that Baltimore had the No. 1 teen pregnancy rate in the nation some 20 years ago. Lacrosse became her vehicle.

"I think I was so lucky to have been allowed to play sports and be supported," Hall said. "It made such a difference in my life in who I am. I feel badly for other girls who don't get that opportunity."

She made a commitment to the inner city in 2001 when she began coaching elementary-age girls at Patterson Park for the Department of Recreation and Parks. A year later, with the help of Brenda Jennings, then vice principal at William Paca, she formed the Pacas.

Since then, Hall has taken on all duties with the Pacas, including fundraiser. Under the nonprofit umbrella of Parks & People, she has operated a budget that ranged from $2,000 to $5,000 a year.

Hall lists four reasons for her decision to end the program, including a shortage of involved parents and reliable girls.

Failing to find a full-time assistant coach as well as someone to replace Jennings and Shirley Dessesow, both former Paca employees, made the job too much for one person to handle, Hall says.

"I don't have people who can help me coach on a regular basis," she said. "And there's no one within the school who can put in the time and effort that Brenda and Shirley put in. It's a lot of work, and those two women were willing to do it."

Dr. Mary Minter, former principal at Paca and now the chief academic officer for the Baltimore City school system, spoke of a break in communication when she said she feels Hall should have made more effort to express her need for help.

"It disheartens me because the girls loved the program," Minter said. "Me speaking as a principal, I wish she had said something. Certainly, we need the program. We will see if we can get someone else to do it."

Hall, meanwhile, plans to fulfill her commitment to the older girls on the team and help get them into a good high school with the prospect of college.

"I have agonized over these girls," she said. "I have lost sleep over these girls and how they're treated and what happens to them. But I know that the ones who've worked with me, I know we've done something together.

"I'm not done with inner-city lacrosse. There's no other lacrosse I want to coach. Nothing else interests me in the lacrosse world."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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