A sign for the Penn North Kids Safe Zone. Image via ABC2.

The Penn North Kids Safe Zone in West Baltimore has a new director who plans to broaden programming and shift the staff culture as the center’s now-former director, Ericka Alston-Buck, leaves to pursue her own venture serving the city’s youth.

Essence Smith, who was promoted over the weekend from executive assistant to director of the Sandtown-Winchester youth center, told Baltimore Fishbowl Monday morning that despite rumors of a closure on Friday, “we are 100 percent fully operational. We have made no changes to anything other than that Ericka Alston-Buck is no longer with us.”

A sign left on the door on Friday afternoon indicated the West Baltimore youth facility had shuttered, but new signage placed there later that day said it would remain open. Smith said she was actually out bringing 16 kids on a swimming trip when the closure sign went up, but it was replaced once she got back.

Alston-Buck founded the Kids Safe Zone in 2015 amid the uprising following Freddie Gray’s death. At the time, she was working as a public relations specialist for the adjacent Penn North Recovery center, a drug treatment facility that uses acupuncture to help people suffering from addiction, but she was promoted to CEO of both the Kids Safe Zone and Penn North Recovery during the unrest.

“I went into 2018 knowing that the day would come that I would have to make the choice between being the CEO of Penn North OR The Kids Safe Zone Lady,” Alton-Buck wrote in a statement posted to Facebook on Friday. She said that under financial constraints, Penn North’s board of directors had on several occasions asked her to “explore ways to dissolve the operations of The Kids Safe Zone.”

“Effective today, I have severed ties with Penn North in the capacity of CEO and have decided to explore my options of continuing what I know I have been called to do, advocate for and provide a safe place for the young people of Sandtown,” she said.

Alston-Buck’s new pursuit will not be “in such close proximity to the drug treatment center,” she said, calling that factor “one of the biggest challenges that I’ve had to continue to overcome.”

She noted Penn North’s board was helping to make the leadership transition “as seamless as possible while fulfilling current grant responsibilities and partnerships.”

Smith, who’s now in charge, said she plans to introduce more field trips and tours around the city to the programming lineup, and wants to give staff more opportunities “to express their creativity” while working with kids.

She’s also prioritizing working more closely with families. Previous leadership “did not build tight leadership with the parents,” Smith said. “We know the children can only go as far as their parents.”

Well after Gray’s death and the ensuing unrest of 2015, the Kids Safe Zone made headlines for providing dozens of West Baltimore youth a safe place to go after school. Outlets reported attendance as high as 100 kids per day.

But that wasn’t the case for most of the last two years, Smith said. Nowadays, the center serves 10 kids daily. “The large portion of that is because the kids come here and they’re not really getting anything.”

Now that she’s at the helm, Smith hopes to boost attendance by hosting fields trips that get children out of West Baltimore and out to places like the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and Port Discovery downtown. She also wants to send the kids to more events sponsored by the city’s historically black colleges, Coppin State and Morgan State universities.

“We want to make sure that the kids are becoming who we know they can become, ultimately,” she said.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...