Seeing Hope in a Tough Part of Baltimore

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This is the first in our regular series of college essays and speeches by area seniors. We invite submissions and will even pay a modest fee of $20. (That’s 1/4 tank of gas!) Please only the eager, thoughtful and reverent apply. A little irreverence is okay. Contact [email protected]

Below is the senior speech of 2007 Bryn Mawr School graduate Flannery Gallagher. She is currently a senior at Columbia University. She graduates this May. 

On September 26th 1929 Mary Kelly, my grandmother, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. She was taken home by her parents to 700 E. 21st.  St. She grew up in that neighborhood, moving from time to time, but always within blocks of her first home. She married Francis X. Gallagher Sr., also a resident of this neighborhood. Over time the neighborhood, which had once been home to primarily German and Irish-Americans began to diversify with a growing African-American population. My great-grandparents, unlike many in the neighborhood, did not feel uncomfortable with their black neighbors and did not immediately leave in the movement that would be known as “White Flight”. After some time, however, they too followed the pattern of their neighbors and moved up Greenmount Avenue and York Road to Govans. 

In the past two years I have moved back in to the neighborhood that my grandparents’ families left over 50 years ago. The neighborhood has transformed as urban decay has afflicted it for too many years without the intervention of effective politicians or a sufficiently concerned public. At least one of my grandmother’s childhood homes is boarded up. In the 1980s, with the influx of new, more potent drugs, there became the need for a community center that would serve the children of the neighborhood. This need was met by the Franciscan Youth Center – known by most as FYC. FYC operates as an after-school program and summer camp. I joined the FYC family during the summer following my sophomore year, to complete my required community service hours. I stopped playing basketball my junior year so I could return to the after school program, and it was then that I decided to apply to for Broadus Grant for the summer of 2006. I have been there this winter as well at the afterschool program. I was hooked that first summer and haven’t left since.

The Franciscan Youth Center is a beacon of hope in a neighborhood that struggles on a daily basis. The children primarily live at or below the poverty line and depend on the Franciscan Youth Center as a safe place to go after school and as a camp. FYC is one of the few positive options that the children have in their neighborhood. The parents and grandparents trust those at FYC to help nurture their children. Many children in the neighborhood are at every disadvantage. Each and every day they are faced with difficult decisions and FYC fights to be an example of the right path. The children at the center live in either Midway-Barclay or Waverly, two neighborhoods situated on the Greenmount Corridor. The Midway-Barclay neighborhood faces many problems. It is plagued with an abundance of vacant houses, high domestic violence rates, a large number of juvenile arrests of youth ages 10-17, a median household income of $18,712, a higher than average percentage of children 0-6 years old with elevated blood lead levels, and a high number of drug treatment clients in the zip code of the Center. These characteristics of the neighborhood are constants for the children. With the loss of our building in Midway-Barclay, for the past two years we have moved our program to the Waverly neighborhood, also situated on the Greenmount Corridor, keeping our offices in Midway-Barclay. The statistics are slightly better in this neighborhood, but the trends are similar. We continue to provide a van service that drives the kids from Midway-Barclay to Waverly, as we especially don’t want to lose them, as they are particularly at risk. In the future, we hope to move back to Midway-Barclay, while maintaining a satellite program in Waverly. A graduate of FYC said, “I saw friends that didn’t stay at the center and were lost to the streets.  It could have been me. The staff always offered a helping hand, or an encouraging word.” The risk is real and prevalent in these children’s lives. The children, with some help along the way, are more than capable of breaking out into more successful lifestyles.

I have the task of trying to explain one of the most fulfilling experiences I have ever been a part of. The magnitude of the intricacies is considerable and the memories are invaluable. This experience has added a completely new dimension to me. It influences every last thing I observe no matter how seemingly unrelated. My time there has incited a passion in me and has led me on an educational journey. Although the complexities are evident on the surface, my relationships with the people at FYC are some of the least complicated relationships I’ve ever had.

To understand my interaction with the FYC children, it is important to understand the projects on which I worked. This past summer with the assistance of the grant, I was there daily from 8am to 5pm for six weeks. Although I had strong relationships going into the summer with most of the staff and children, the Broadus grant was key in giving me the opportunity to strengthen those relationships, in ways that I otherwise would not be able to do and I am so grateful to the Broadus family for giving me the privilege of spending so much time at FYC.  In the mornings after breakfast there were two class periods- a character enrichment class that was based in Christian values and the Academic Enrichment class- the latter  for which I was responsible. My role was Team leader, and I helped my Head Teacher, in the ways that I could. The classes were an opportunity to supplement the education that the students receive during the year. Classroom management was also a key factor  and paying attention to each student was important in this management. Making the lessons fun was also essential, as many of the kids understandably find academics in the summer less than desirable. At times, I felt that my lessons were not helping, that I was teaching in a less- than efficient way. Building self-confidence helped me be an effective teacher, but it was also incredibly important to reevaluate my teaching methods. Lunch would then be served and the children would go on the their afternoon activities which included swimming at Druid Hill Park pool, lacrosse, or a field trip. I taught lacrosse to girls on Mondays and Tuesdays for two hours each day. I saw teaching lacrosse as the perfect opportunity to blend two things, which are very fulfilling for me: sports and the Franciscan Youth Center. I also chose to devote my lacrosse time to the girls because in past experiences at FYC, I had observed that sports were dominated by the boys, and that the girls who did participate were very hesitant and had little self-confidence in their abilities. Our lacrosse sessions were always interesting. I soon realized that the brutal Baltimore summer afternoons would be one of the main challenges. I learned how to work with the given situation, and we soon had water balloon fights at the end of each practice. Skills came more quickly for some than others; some were interested and excited throughout all the sessions; others had to be pushed through every second of every minute of every practice. I wanted the girls to enjoy lacrosse, and while I realized that it was impossible for all of them to love it, I knew some would. I wanted them to learn how to cradle, how to pass, and how to catch, but I really wanted them to learn how to cooperate, how to cheer each other on, and how to have fun with physical activity. Baltimore is the headquarters of lacrosse and walking around this neighborhood, that comes as no surprise. Fathers here pick their sons up from practice and hold their sticks and equipment for them, reliving their glory days from 30 years ago. Why is it then, that after traveling down Greenmount Avenue for ten minutes, you will find many fewer people who recognize a lacrosse stick? These Baltimoreans have not been afforded the opportunity to experience the sport for which their city is known. Lacrosse is a perfect indicator of the segregated nature of Baltimore. Introducing lacrosse to these children, is just one step in leveling the proverbial playing field for all citizens of this city.           

The children create the FYC experience. They are dynamic, charismatic, and incredibly capable. They are hilariously funny, curious, and kind, despite all of the difficulties many of them have faced and will face. Some might think that I wouldn’t be able to relate to them- that our diverse backgrounds obliterate any sense of understanding. These people could not be more wrong. I hope and think that the children at FYC see my respect and admiration for them. 

No longer just Flan or Flannery, at FYC I have been transformed in to Miss Flannery. Although my name changes slightly, nothing else about me does. I talk the same, laugh at the same things, and get annoyed by the same pet peeves. I do not change when I am at FYC and there I am completely comfortable to be myself. I am pushed to do my best for only the purest reasons- watching and facilitating the positive growth of  “my kids”. 

In understanding my experience, it is important not to become caught up in divisions of black or white. Black, white, African-American, and Caucasian are only terms; they are words and they cannot do justice to the issues surrounding them. Race was not a defining part of my experience, and it is important to understand why. I was usually the only white person there, but I did not notice.  This was the first time I had ever consistently been the minority- and while my new minority status may have looked unusual, it did not feel uncomfortable. Although I did not notice being the only white person, some of the children did. I’ve spoken about race with a handful of the children- some of them more than others but I never dodged the subject. Our conversations ranged from superficial to pensive and serious. Their questions and statements about race are usually, genuinely curious, respectful, and often funny. When we would leave the center for outings, I would sometimes notice people trying to figure out my role with the kids, but I was always too busy to pay them any mind. Our races didn’t create any insurmountable differences.  Some people may not understand the bond between the children and me; some are not able to understand that you don’t have to look like someone or be from the same neighborhood to find a common ground.  My relationship with my kids is all too natural to waste time worrying about being the only white person in a room.??If my kids and I have so much in common, then you may be asking what distinguishes FYC from any program that I ever attended or any program held at Bryn Mawr. FYC children have a primary defining characteristic and that is their level of access. Access is a tricky thing. All of us here have access, although to varying degrees, because we are fortunate to attend a school like Bryn Mawr. Only a handful of the people in this auditorium fought for this access; for the most part we attend this school because of our parents. But, we as students, have done little, besides simply being born into a certain family situation. Levels of access are absolutely no reflection of character or ability. There is a misconception about people who live in the neighborhoods that my kids live in- that they don’t care or that they decide not to contribute to the workforce, or that they choose not to graduate from high school. They would be able to do all of these things and more if they had access to the tools. Pride is palpable in these neighborhoods- so are injustice and pain. I can see the frustration when a child feels inadequate doing his homework. He has not been given the tools to be able to feel confident about school because his teacher was not prepared to provide them, because the school system did not provide them to her either because they did not manage their money or because the government did not efficiently allocate their funds in the first place. The failure is everywhere and it is constantly being perpetuated.

At the end of any given day at FYC, chances are that I am absolutely exhausted. My limbs are heavy and sleep is my only goal. This is not any old type of tired, however. This is the type of tired, when you are absolutely content. This is when exhaustion is calming and fulfilling. This type of tired, I believe comes from doing something you love. Driving up Greenmount Avenue on my way home, I am absolutely serene. When I am at the Franciscan Youth Center, I am at my happiest. Worries and stress disappear, and I am able to appreciate everything in that moment. Seemingly small triumphs are monumental. I do not think that there is any moment like a child grasping a concept with which he has been struggling. It is not as simple as a child learning the function of a verb in a sentence or understanding subtraction. In that moment, that child is gaining self-confidence; he is beginning to understand the power and fulfillment of learning; he is feeding his curiosity; he is building his future. Witnessing a child going through this process is basic, yet momentous. Being a part of that child’s experience is infinitely gratifying.

Now, I feel like I have been at FYC for ages. The children and staff are my old friends with whom I don’t always need to speak, in order to communicate. When my sports schedules in the fall and spring prevent me from making it to the center for a couple weeks, when I come back to visit, the transition is smooth. I can barely remember the times in which I didn’t fill my idle time, thinking about my kids, or teaching myself about my city. There are moments from two summers ago that still bring a smile to my face. There are days and moments, as well, that make me furious. Who or what I’m angry at has still yet to be determined. I know what I am angry about and it is at the root of what brought me to FYC in the first place. When I was younger, I was taught and I believed that opportunity was for the taking. Democracy was for every last person in society. There is still much for me to see, but what I have seen so far in my home city, makes me believe differently. On my father and my many drives throughout the nooks and crannies of this city, I began to see that opportunity is not for the taking. I’m angry that when I leave FYC and come back to my own Baltimore city neighborhood, people seem not to pay any mind to their fellow Baltimoreans. Sometimes I wonder if they don’t know the extent of what’s going on 15 minutes from their homes, or if they know and don’t care, or if they know and pretend not to. 

FYC is not a hobby, or an “extracurricular activity”; . it is an all-consuming experience. I have caught the bug, and I do not feel like I could ever abandon this issue. I’ve gone through many phases. There were times when I was obsessed with and read exclusively about the Holocaust, cars, Presidents, First Ladies, and NBA basketball teams. For the past two years, most of what I’ve read has been about the lives of today’s urban youth. I read the archives of City Paper to learn about the different neighborhoods in Baltimore. I read a crime blog every day, documenting the daily crime in the city. I read the census reports on the different neighborhoods. I read the Maryland State Assesment results for schools, which the FYC kids attend. I read the Maryland section of the Sun every morning, no matter how late, I’m going to be to school. I go for drives throughout the city, exploring neighborhoods that I wouldn’t otherwise see. And I cannot imagine moving on from this learning process like I moved on from the others.

FYC is a reflection of the larger picture. We as a society are failing our children. We are failing our children who live below the poverty line and our children who fall under a racial minority. We have left them behind and they know it and it is criminal of us. We make assumptions about them and judge them and forget that they are only children. We are failing our children and we are all responsible. If you make it nearly impossible- which we have done- for a child to gain access, chances are high that he won’t. The purpose of FYC is to help provide access. We cannot make a child succeed, but we can do everything in our power to ensure that he or she has the tools to have a chance. In today’s urban underclass, the children have lost before they even have the chance to play

I could go on for hours and often do- about how much I admire the people at FYC. Sandi McFadden and Alvarez Dixon have shown me the ups and downs of a non-profit and the innovation, which is essential in making a difference in the lives of today’s urban youth. They treat their profession as a calling, rather than a job. The rest of the staff has shown me the importance of dedication and finding humor in situations that can be disheartening. But it is the children, who have taught me more than anyone else. They see right through me whenever I put up my guard. They notice if I got a hair cut. They let me know when I’m wrong. They let me know when my outfit is or is not working for them. They lift my spirits, no matter how down I might be feeling. They find words for moments I cannot articulate. Kris Bridgeford, a 15 year old student articulated what FYC means for him, more beautifully and candidly than I ever could in the poem I am about to read. Let us listen to his words and learn from him. Remind yourself of Kris and his message and we will be on our way to understanding that we have no choice except to fight until things are just for all of our city’s children. These are the words of Kristofer Bridgeford.

HOME

They say home is where you can always find love,

But sometimes home isn’t always where the love resides.

This place is a second home to me, a place where love will always be.

A place of friends and family

A place where I can feel wanted and cared for

A place where I can make my transitions from a boy to a man

A place where I can put together my master plan to fulfill my dreams

A place where I learn right from wrong and life lessons

A place where I am understood and taught life lessons by mentors

A place where I sweat out the problems of the day

This is a place where I am free

And for years to come this place will always be a second home to me

THIS IS THE FYC!

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