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Dan Rodricks: Living Classrooms keeps a ‘great good place’ for kids and adults in Baltimore. It’s kind of overwhelming. | COMMENTARY

Sewing class instructor Arndrea Hoyle, clockwise from left, shows sewing details to students Tracy McCready, Fannie Rucker, Selma Saunders and Evelyn Rice during class at Living Classroom's UA House.
Sewing class instructor Arndrea Hoyle, clockwise from left, shows sewing details to students Tracy McCready, Fannie Rucker, Selma Saunders and Evelyn Rice during class at Living Classroom's UA House. (Kenneth K. Lam)

I love the moment when you come upon someone else’s joy, and all the better when you least expect it. There’s a nice sensation in discovering strangers blissfully at work or play. You step across the threshold into a certain well-lit room and suddenly everyone and everything seems charged and cheerful.

So it happened when we opened the door to Arndrea Hoyle’s sewing class at Living Classroom’s UA House on East Fayette Street. There were six women smiling through their pandemic masks, enthralled in learning to sew and enthusiastic about their projects. They broke out of a group around Hoyle at her sewing machine and quickly and pridefully showed me what they had made and what they were in the midst of making: dresses of bright prints, a quilted vest, colorful cloth shopping bags in time for Baltimore’s ban on plastic. There was chatter, there was laughter, and I took that as validation of what Living Classrooms achieves inside the big, busy building near the city’s main post office.

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This is what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg called “a great good place,” a gathering away from home, school or work for children and adults. They can learn and create, run and jump and feel good about themselves. There’s a sense of community and an atmosphere of collegiality. For a moment, I was tempted to sign up for Hoyle’s sewing class.

Or I could take Christina Campbell’s music class and record my own composition.

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Or how about a yoga class? Maybe Zumba. Both are offered.

Or, down a flight, there’s Monique Jordan’s cooking class. I could use a tutorial in knife skills.

If I needed the equivalent of a high school diploma, I could take a class for one at UA House.

Sewing class instructor Arndrea Hoyle, clockwise from left, shows sewing details to students Tracy McCready, Fannie Rucker, Selma Saunders and Evelyn Rice during class at Living Classroom's UA House.
Sewing class instructor Arndrea Hoyle, clockwise from left, shows sewing details to students Tracy McCready, Fannie Rucker, Selma Saunders and Evelyn Rice during class at Living Classroom's UA House. (Kenneth K. Lam)

If I needed to change careers, I could learn about child care and get certified for a job in that field. Erica Lewis and Cierra Jackson would get me registered. They also have a class for nursing assistants.

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And there’s a class in product distribution, a way to prepare for a shipping job at Tradepoint Atlantic. They’ll show you how to pack boxes, how to operate a forklift and a pallet truck.

Or maybe I could help some kids with their homework in the after-school programs.

Or shoot some hoops in the gymnasium. Or toss a football around on the enclosed turf field.

UA House is mostly about the kids, after all. Every weekday after school, anywhere from 50 to 100 of them, in grades 1 through 8, get snacks and a warm meal, homework help and enrichment programs like Campbell’s music class or classes in art, technology and dance. It’s all free.

Chas Ackley, a Living Classrooms official, calls UA House “a safe nurturing environment for our young people to go through the human growth process surrounded by caring, compassionate adults.”

There’s so much going on at UA House, day after day, and that’s why I’ve brought you here. Attention must be paid. Until recently, I considered myself to be among the many Baltimoreans who think of Living Classrooms as “field trips on boats for kids on the Chesapeake.” But it’s turned into a lot more than that over the last 36 years. I really did not appreciate what Living Classrooms does for thousands of struggling Baltimoreans — it’s kind of overwhelming, really — and how the scope of the foundation, with a $16 million annual budget, has grown.

The UA House is just one of many LC operations. It was originally named after NBA star Carmelo Anthony and operated as a youth development center. Thanks to Under Armour, the new title sponsor, the center underwent a $6.5 million renovation and a physical and program expansion five years ago. (Thus the enclosed turf.)

It’s not just a big rec center. UA House at Fayette is the hub of a sprawling anti-poverty effort in what Living Classrooms calls the Baltimore Target Investment Zone, a 2.5-square-mile area of East Baltimore where more than 40,000 people live and incomes are low. Inspired some 15 years ago by Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, the foundation undertook a long-term effort to break the cycle of generational poverty by offering free “cradle to college” services for the families living within the zone. Four areas get the most emphasis — education, job training, health and wellness, and violence prevention.

The zone runs east from the Jones Falls Expressway to Patterson Park, and north from Eastern Avenue to North Avenue. Ackley is the zone’s chief operating officer and works with Travis Street to coordinate activities and services in the zone.

“We try to build trust with families,” says Street. “We do needs assessments all the time in the community to tell us what’s going well, what’s not going well. It’s all about us meeting families where they are, not them meeting us where we are.”

Because so much of the effort is aimed at children, Ackley and Street maintain partnerships with 22 schools in the zone or just outside its boundaries.

And did I mention that Living Classrooms has its own tuition-free middle school, The Crossroads School? It’s a public charter with 123 students. You can find it right where it has been for the last 20 years, on prime real estate between Harbor East and Harbor Point.

More on that in another column. I don’t want to overwhelm you.

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