Activists focus efforts on West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested

Efforts are underway to change the narrative for kids growing up in Sandtown-Winchester.

On a recent April afternoon at a new youth center in West Baltimore, Ericka Alston sat in the middle of a purple room packed with kids on mats in a "mindfulness yoga" class. In an adjoining orange room, another cluster of kids hopped to a dance-along video game.

Others were on a field trip organized by the center, feasting on herb-baked chicken and salad with honey-mustard vinaigrette dressing during a field trip to the Pompeian Olive Oil company.

For a few hours a day, these children — most of whom live in Gilmor Homes public housing — can "just be kids" inside what Alston, 45, calls a "mini-Disneyland" at the Penn North Kids Safe Zone in West Baltimore. It's one of several efforts to change conditions in Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested last April.

The Rev. Derrick DeWitt, pastor of the First Mount Calvary Baptist Church, has helped to expand an urban farming operation, hiring former convicts. The Quaker-affiliated organization American Friends Service Committee and local community groups are organizing food and clothing drives and rebuilding basketball courts.

Thousands of "Thou Shall Not Kill" signs have been posted by a community group in response to a spike in violence. And state and city officials have pledged to tackle longer-term projects, including tearing down vacant buildings and eradicating blight.

Alston founded the Kids Safe Zone center last year in response to the unrest after the death of Gray, who suffered spinal cord injuries while in police custody, and she has witnessed the outpouring of support firsthand.

Singer Alicia Keys came and gave a concert. Then A&E Networks donated $30,000, and health care company Kaiser Permanente gave $10,000. Patients in Penn North's drug rehabilitation center, located in a nearby complex, donated dollars every week to send the kids to the local pool.

"Everybody wanted to help the kids," Alston said.

Sandtown-Winchester faces some of the city's most enduring social ills. The area has one of the highest incarceration rates in the state. The homicide rate is more than twice the city average. About half of the children live below the poverty line, and nearly a quarter of adults are out of work.

More than two decades ago, developers, religious and community leaders, nonprofits and elected officials launched a sweeping effort to build or renovate hundreds of homes, improve schools and health outcomes, and provide job training in Sandtown-Winchester. But critics said that initiative faltered as investment waned.

Michael Cryor, chairman of OneBaltimore, a public-private partnership aimed at addressing some of the city's most persistent problems, said Sandtown-Winchester has been a focus of philanthropy over the past year and that he hopes to give programs like Kids Safe Zone a longer "shelf life." Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake set up OneBaltimore in the aftermath of Gray's death.

"We don't have a shortage of good programs," he said. "What we lack is the ability to sustain them and connect them."

While groups like Alston's work on the front lines, Cryor said groups like OneBaltimore are focused on longer-term solutions, including connecting residents to cybersecurity and health care jobs.

"We're working on getting the framework and platform right in dealing with generations of inequality," he said.

With a $50,000 donation from Maryland Governor's Office for Children, the Kids Safe Zone center has been expanded to 5,000 square feet and offers free programs to about 60 children ages 5 to 17 every day after school until 8 p.m. During the summer, the center's doors open to more than 100 children from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

On April 27, 2015 — the day of Gray's funeral — Alston found herself locked in with Gray's family. Penn North was hosting a "repast," a celebration of his life, after his funeral, when she heard someone yell: "No one in or out!"

"They told us that someone just set a police car on fire up the street, and I'm like, 'What?'" Alston said. "It was very, very surreal."

The next morning, she pulled out of her wooded suburban Baltimore home, stopping to let a family of deer cross the road. Fifteen minutes later, she entered a scene of charred brick buildings, National Guardsmen in camouflage and carrying rifles, and police helicopters hovering overhead.

"I looked around and thought, 'I get to leave this,'" she said. "They don't."

Over the next few days, Alston said, she heard residents repeatedly complain: "Our kids have no place to go after school — no sports, no jobs, no recreation."

She asked her boss: Why doesn't Penn North set up a center for children?

Her boss, Blaize Connelly-Duggan, executive director of the recovery center, handed her keys to an old vacant laundromat and told her to make it happen. So Alston, with her best friend Tonette Mcfadden, 40, took to Facebook asking for donations.

"The next day," Alston said, "a caravan of soccer moms came honking, yelling, 'I'm looking for an Ericka.'"

The moms, local businesses and strangers dropped off "everything we asked for," Alston said.

Alston knows the odds growing up in Sandtown-Winchester, a neighborhood ravaged by violence, drugs and poverty. Several corner gangs linger around the Gilmor Homes apartments where the children live. Alston said young teenagers are "prime targets" to recruit into the heroin and cocaine trades. Some have troubled backgrounds and are more susceptible to bad influences.

She recalled a 13-year-old whose father had been shot and was in jail. The boy had gotten into trouble at the center, and some employees thought he shouldn't be allowed to return.

Alston, a recovering drug addict who is now a marathon runner, still had hope for the boy. She offered him a hug and let him pick one of her marathon medals to wear around his neck. He picked "Most Difficult Race" and promised not to misbehave again.

Down the street from the Safe Zone, a coalition of activists have opened another "safe house." They're renovating a vacant red-brick rowhouse on Presbury Street to serve as a hub for food drives, mentoring, community cookouts and art classes. City officials had planned to raze the building, but the coalition is trying to stop them, possibly by seeking historic preservation status for the building.

The coalition includes the American Friends Service Committee and local community groups Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and Communities United. Eddie Conway, co-founder of the Quaker-related Friend of a Friend prison mentoring program, said Gilmor Homes was a "ground zero" for high incarceration rates and low economic opportunity.

Conway, a former Black Panthers leader who served more than 43 years in prison for shooting a Baltimore police officer, was released from prison in 2014 after an appellate court nullified verdicts before 1980 because of faulty jury instructions.

"We want to focus on changing the narrative for young people," Conway said. "All they see is the police arrest their family members. They don't see other options. ... We want to show them how to stay in school — that they could become an artist, a camera person, a farmer."

The unrest last spring led DeWitt, the Baptist minister, to revitalize a dormant alliance called Clergy United for the Transformation of Sandtown, which includes 12 churches of different denominations.

Many of the group's projects have been expanded in the past year, including an urban farming program that employs former inmates to grow vegetables for sale to local restaurants. They now have 19 greenhouses and employ up to 12 people at a time.

DeWitt also has hired a dozen local residents, including six Gilmor Homes residents, at the Maryland Baptist Aged Home, a nursing home in West Baltimore. DeWitt is the chief financial officer of the home, which plans to more than triple in size by the end of 2017. He wants to use the old building as a training center for local residents to become nurses, janitors and geriatric assistants.

Many activists are focused on stemming the violence. Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association, helped pass out more than 7,000 "Thou Shall Not Kill" signs and organize street crime watch groups.

In his spare time, DeWitt knocks on the doors of local gang members, hoping to offer them a way out. He said he's spoken to least a dozen area gang members, trying to convince them to leave their gangs through Operation Ceasefire — a city anti-gun violence program that connects gang members to social workers, FBI agents and others to help them start a new life.

"We have some success and failure. But if we reach just one, it's successful," DeWitt said.

crentz@baltsun.com

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