One day in May 2020, James Piper Bond, CEO of the Living Classrooms Foundation, received a voice message on his phone from a woman who sounded strikingly familiar:
“Hi, James,” she said. “This is Oprah. I assume that you can use another million dollars now that we’re in the pandemic.”
As her voice message inferred, that million dollars from media star Oprah Winfrey was not her first to the organization. And neither would have come without the visionary Mr. Bond at the helm.
It started when he returned after a wandering, adventuring life and travels around the globe, sailing the South Pacific on a two-masted sailboat after college; teaching maritime programs in France and Switzerland; and coaching lacrosse at an Australian university. In 1986, Mr. Bond returned to his Baltimore hometown and became education director aboard the pungy schooner Lady Maryland, a learning vessel and the flagship of what soon became the Living Classrooms Foundation. Three years later, Mr. Bond would become its executive director, and in 1995, the CEO and president.
Starting out with that single floating laboratory to teach children about the environment and maritime history, Mr. Bond developed the foundation over its four decades into an anti-poverty force on the Baltimore waterfront, offering an array of programs that have touched thousands of lives. Among them: urban gardening for kids; post-prison employment and job training for ex-offenders; community centers, anti-violence programs, early childhood education, a tuition-free middle school (Crossroads); daily after-school programs; music education; and the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Campus, which Mr. Bond calls the country’s first urban wildlife center.
Last year, the foundation’s Safe Streets sites conducted more than 400 mediations to stop brewing violence. Its Project SERVE, a program that helps ex-offenders find employment after prison, recorded 151 job placements in a battered economy.
“James Piper Bond is an authentic visionary,” says Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and one of Mr. Bond’s former mentors. “He knows how to connect people, from the business leadership to people in public housing to young students to returning citizens who have been down on their luck. And that smile that he has is genuine, it reflects a spirit that says, ‘We will get through this.’ He understands the problems of Baltimore and of the American urban environment and he has committed his life to making a difference.”
During the pandemic, the nonprofit shifted its mission to help some of East Baltimore’s poorest families adjust to the effects of the lockdowns put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Staffers distributed thousands of meals and household supplies, and thousands of activity boxes in science, math and art for children. They purchased the technology needed to keep sixth, seventh and eighth graders at the Crossroads School from falling behind academically.
That call from Ms. Winfrey came in the nick of time.
Five years earlier, while in Baltimore for the production of a movie, she had happened into a conversation with some men in Project SERVE, which led her to Mr. Bond. She gave him a chance to explain everything Living Classrooms does — a daunting challenge for the few minutes Ms. Winfrey had to spare — and, on the spot, she pledged the first $1 million.
That marked a turnaround for Ms. Winfrey, whose television talk show career had started in Baltimore. In 2006, she famously disparaged education in the city and refused to donate any of her wealth to city schools. But she was an instant believer in the education mission of Living Classrooms — and not the first person to be blown away by the scope and scale of what the foundation has been doing in Baltimore under the direction of Mr. Bond, leading her to pledge a second million just a few years later.
At the heart of Living Classrooms is its Target Investment Zone, a 2.5-square-mile area of East Baltimore (population, about 40,000) that concentrates its programs on breaking the cycle of generational poverty with a holistic approach.
“We work with the entire family,” Mr. Bond says. “We work with the babies, the parents, the grandparents, focusing on the core competencies of education, workforce development, health and wellness, and violence prevention. We find the best partners and coordinate with them, raise money and really lean into it.”
Talib Horne, now director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s efforts in Baltimore, helped Mr. Mr. Bond develop the zone. Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, the idea is to saturate the area with the best programs possible to help low-income families and children.
“It’s cradle to college,” says Mr. Horne, listing the numerous projects Living Classrooms developed within the zone, including the UA House, a community center funded by Under Armour. The center offers education, job training and wellness programs to children and adults.
“It’s a very big project, trying to break the cycle of poverty in a particular area,” Mr. Horne says. “And this is why I credit James. The man is fearless in taking on big challenges. He’s relentless in this, relentless.”
Living Classrooms continues to evolve and has undertaken a new project — the Jack and Nancy Dwyer Workforce Development Program, to offer job training in entry-level health care jobs. The foundation also plans to establish what Mr. Bond calls a “supply chain academy,” offering eight-week courses to prepare people for work in the warehouses at TradePoint Atlantic.
For Mr. Bond, the possibilities continue to be endless, the mission the same as when he started. “Life is short,” he says, “and we’re impatient to provide opportunities for those who typically don’t have them.”
James Piper Bond
Current residence: Baltimore
Education: Gilman School and University of North Carolina
Career highlights: President and CEO, Living Classrooms Foundation
Civic and charitable activities: Serves on numerous boards and chairs the Baltimore National Heritage Area
Family: Wife, Meg Ward; combined family of four children