By Catherine Krikstan and Tina Irgang
BALTIMORE – Two girls are first onto the playground. They stand underneath a slide, gossiping and taking pictures of each other on a pink cell phone.
Next appear three boys, two of whom wrestle each other over and under and around the equipment while the third acts as a referee, shouting, “One! Two! Three!”
All of a sudden, they’re everywhere — elementary school children in uniforms of green polos and khaki pants, tossing their backpacks to the ground and pitching insults to their friends, letting off steam from their day at school before streaming into the gymnasium at 3:30 p.m.
Each of these students is enrolled in the Franciscan Youth Center’s after-school program, which, for 24 years, has provided East Baltimore with student care and education. The center now serves up to 110 elementary and middle-school students each day.
In a recession, some parents try to make ends meet with second or even third jobs. With this extra work comes the need for extra childcare.
But city revenues are down, and cuts to the budget are looming. The Department of Recreation and Parks plans to close its two remaining child-care centers. The city’s Family League grant is set to be cut in half. The Franciscan Youth Center is in danger of losing funding and having to turn families away.
A threatened budget cut is one challenge facing this program that is overenrolled and understaffed. In the four years that the program has occupied the Waverly Recreation Center, its enrollment has increased almost 60 percent.
“We don’t want to turn people away,” said Cathy Haggerty, the director of development. “But in the end we had to because we don’t have the funding.”
Five afternoons a week, elementary school students meet at the recreation center; middle school students gather at the local YMCA. After catching up with their friends and slowly settling down, the students line up behind their group leaders and follow them to different classrooms. They eat a healthy snack before branching off to different activities — homework help, music lessons, martial arts, sports — until their parents pick them up by 6:30 p.m.
Just over half of this $600,000 program is government-funded. The rest comes from individual donations or corporate and foundation grants and partnerships.
The most marked decline in funding this year, said Haggerty, has been in corporate donations. Haggerty, who is in charge of the program’s fundraising, so worries about this source of revenue that she cancelled an April fundraising event in hopes of obtaining larger donations during the program’s upcoming 25th anniversary celebration. Aware of the corporations’ budget problems, she didn’t want to ask for donations twice.
In a financial “worst-case scenario,” Haggerty said, “we would have to shrink our program.” Haggerty said it is better to limit the number of new students allowed into the program than to cut services.
“We know you can’t just provide a little,” said Haggerty. “You need to look at the whole picture.”
Most of the program’s participants live in Waverly and Better Waverly, adjacent neighborhoods that face problems such as substance abuse, teen pregnancy and violent crime. The Franciscan Youth Center’s services aim to ease the impact of these problems on children.
Gangs are also an issue, with three — the Bloods, the Crips and the Black Guerilla Family — active in the area.
These gangs tend to recruit juveniles, said Bob Brinkman, coordinator of Comprehensive Strategic and Focused Enforcement, a program that addresses public safety issues in the Waverlies and Pen Lucy.
“They’re looking for people who are 18 and under,” said Brinkman, “because they’re juveniles and they’ll probably get probation for a first offense.”
In recent years, gang members have twice fire-bombed nearby activists’ homes.
According to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, more than 40 percent of households in the Waverlies earn less than $25,000 per year. While more than two-thirds of the area’s adult population have some form of post-secondary education, more than 40 percent of residents aged 16 to 64 are not in the labor force.
To overcome such statistics, the Franciscan Youth Center teaches with an eye toward the future, encouraging its students to develop skills and one day to attend college or receive technical training.
The program is non-denominational, but its Catholic roots (the program was founded by the Sisters of St. Francis of Baltimore) appear in lessons on “the Franciscan values of dignity and charity and good citizenship,” Haggerty said.
Group leaders provide students with “a certain level of academic instruction without teacher training,” said Haggerty. Help with homework is the activity that parents request most often.
The program offers a robotics course and a mobile science lab. Students can participate in music lessons through a partnership with the Baltimore Youth Orchestra. Or they can learn how to repair, and then keep, bicycles that have been donated by the police department.
Even student health is taken into account.
“Do I know our children go hungry? No,” said Haggerty. “Do I know everyone qualifies for free and reduced-price lunches? Yes.”
Along with daily snacks, the program provides one hot meal a week.
For some parents, this program is one of the few safe places to leave their children.
Outreach Coordinator Gwendolyn Williams, who addresses parent concerns and recruits parent volunteers, said she hears from parents every day.
“Several of our parents have two jobs and many have lost their jobs or taken cutbacks in pay,” Williams said.
One woman who recently got a new job called Williams to ask if her granddaughter could rejoin the program. “I said yes,” said Williams, “and she told me, ‘You don?t know what this means to me to know she’ll be some place safe, where she’ll be learning.'”
The program measures its success “in different ways,” said Haggerty. “Are any of our children in gangs? Have any of our children been arrested? What are their test scores? Are they improving? What are their grades? Are they improving? What are their disciplinary incidents?”
Many of the program’s graduates keep in touch with staff, returning during high school to work as junior counselors.
“Once you’re an FYC kid,” said Haggerty, “you’re an FYC kid forever.”