In Baltimore, Rec Centers Provide So Much More Than Just Fun

Jun 23, 2015
Originally published on June 23, 2015 8:56 pm

On a recent day at Baltimore's Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center, adolescent boys play basketball, while a group of girls play Monopoly at a nearby table. There's also air hockey, foosball and a computer room in back.

Director Brandi Murphy says there are also swim classes, science lessons, arts and crafts. But the center gives the kids — students age 5 to 12 who come after school and in the summer — far more than fun things to do.

"We are mom, dad, aunt, cousin. They come here to get what they don't have at home," Murphy says. "There are some parents that even to this day, I've had some kids for two years and still haven't met them."

The arrest and death of Freddie Gray two months ago laid bare the drug dealing, violence and lack of opportunity that plague Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods. Local recreation centers, which have a long tradition in the city, provide a much-needed refuge.

Located just behind the public housing complex where Gray was arrested, the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center aims to make up for all that's missing in the struggling West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown.

Murphy, the center director, says many of the children are from a nearby homeless shelter. Others are being raised by foster families, grandparents or older siblings. She says stressful home lives take a toll.

"You can see the anger in the children. Sometimes it's hard for them to communicate. It's hard for them to focus," she says. "There is no discipline at home, so when you come in and you're the discipline, sometimes it can be difficult."

Yet this safe space can help kids cope. Out on the front steps, Stacey Fowlks is organizing a summer basketball league. The middle-aged man has fond memories of his time here.

"Most of the folks from this community at some point have stepped foot inside this center. As you can see it's connected to the elementary school," Fowlks says. "We had some great leaders over the past, that helped groom us to become adults."

That's why the city has taken heat for closing or privatizing a dozen rec centers since 2012. Rachel Donegan, of the University of Maryland's School of Social Work's Promise Heights program, says closing some makes sense. Attendance has dropped as the city's population declined.

But she says it's still left some feeling they have no place to go.

"Baltimore is just one of those places where people are deeply rooted to the neighborhood that they grew up in, and that might mean a five-block span," Donegan says. "Their identity is tied up in that."

The Lillian S. Jones center in Sandtown was privatized — then closed briefly last year — before the city took it over again.

Gwendolyn Chambers with Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks says the city is building bigger, "super centers" and wants to upgrade older ones.

"Create quality spaces. And to adapt your programming to what the communities want now, and not just what they wanted in the '70s," Chambers says. "And so what we do now is a lot of surveys and questions and asking the kids, you know, 'What are you into?' "

She says that led to a recently opened skate park, with help from outside donations.

What's more, for the first time this year, Chambers says, the city is making summer camp at rec centers free.

At the Lillian S. Jones center, it's suppertime, and tacos are on the menu.

Soon after they finish eating, most kids will sign themselves out and walk home. But the activities will keep going. A competitive cheerleading team is trickling in for practice. A group of men holds a nightly pingpong match. Families even come to host meals after they bury a loved one.

"This place is our community," says Fowlks, the longtime Sandtown resident, "from the womb to the tomb."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go to Baltimore now, where the official start of summer means more efforts to keep young people off the streets. The arrest and death of Freddie Gray two months ago laid bare the drug dealing, violence and lack of opportunity that plagued the city's poorest neighborhoods. Recreation centers, which have a long tradition in the city, are a refuge. NPR's Jennifer Ludden spent some time at one of them.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Just behind the public housing complex where Freddie Gray was arrested, the Lillian S. Jones Rec Center aims to make up for all that's missing in this West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown. Students age 5 to 12 come after school and in the summer. Next to adolescent boys playing hoops, a table full of girls plays Monopoly. There's also air hockey, foosball and a computer room in back.

BRANDI MURPHY: Only three minutes on the computer. It's time to give other kids a chance, OK?

LUDDEN: Director Brandi Murphy says there are also swing classes, science lessons, arts and crafts. But the center gives kids far more than fun things to do.

MURPHY: We are mom, dad, aunt, cousin. They come here to get what they don't have at home. There are some parents that even to this day - I've had some kids for two years and still haven't met them.

LUDDEN: Murphy says many children are from a nearby homeless shelter. Others are being raised by foster families, grandparents or older siblings. She says stressful home lives take a toll.

MURPHY: You can see the anger in the children. Sometimes it's hard for them to communicate. It's hard for them to focus. You know, there is no discipline at home, so when you come in and you're the discipline, it sometimes - it can be difficult.

LINAEO: Please don't go right here. What is you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Linaeo (ph) you being so bossy.

LUDDEN: Yet this safe space can help kids cope. Out on the front steps, Stacey Fowlks is organizing a summer basketball league. The middle-aged man has fond memories of his time here.

STACEY FOWLKS: Most of the folks from this community at some point has stepped foot inside the center. As you can see, it's connected to the elementary school. We had some great leaders over the past that helped groom us to become adults.

LUDDEN: Which is why the city's taken heat for closing or privatizing a dozen rec centers since 2012. Rachel Donegan of the University of Maryland says closing some makes sense. Attendance has dropped as the city's population declined. But she says it's still left some feeling they have no place to go.

RACHEL DONEGAN: Baltimore is just one of those places where people are deeply rooted to the neighborhood that they grew up in, and that might mean a five-block span. Their identity is tied up in that.

LUDDEN: The Lillian S. Jones Center in Sandtown was privatized and then closed briefly last year before the city took it over again. Gwendolyn Chambers is with Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks. She says the city is building bigger supercenters and wants to upgrade older ones.

GWENDOLYN CHAMBERS: To create quality spaces and to adapt to programming to what the communities want now and not just what they wanted in the '70s. And so what we do now was a lot of surveys and questions and asking the kids, you know, what are you into?

LUDDEN: She says that led to a recently opened skate park with help from outside donations. What's more, for the first time this year, Chambers says the city is making summer camp at rec centers free.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I know stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: You know this?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: Hey, mommy.

LUDDEN: At the Lillian Jones Center, it's suppertime.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: Taco

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #7: Taco.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #8: Taco.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #9: This is dinner.

LUDDEN: Soon after they finish eating, most kids will sign themselves out and walk home. But the activities here will keep going. A competitive cheerleading team is trickling in for practice. A group of men hold a nightly ping-pong match. Families even come here to host meals after they bury a loved one. This place is our community, says one resident, from cradle to grave. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.