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UMB, community build playground in Upton/Druid Heights

7/4/2014, 6 a.m.
Children without a playground in an impoverished neighborhood have become beneficiaries of a lesson in the power of partnerships.
Hundreds of volunteers showed up to build a state-of-the-art playground that will serve the Historic Samuel Coleridge Taylor Elementary School and families in the surrounding Upton/Druid Heights neighborhood. (Laureate Education/Rachel Smith Photography)

— Children without a playground in their West Baltimore neighborhood received a lesson in the power of partnerships with the help of Promise Heights, a University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) initiative led by the School of Social Work (SSW).

The result of these partnerships is no ordinary tot lot. Baltimore-based Laureate Education, Inc., donated and constructed a state-of-the-art playground to serve the Historic Samuel Coleridge Taylor Elementary School (HSCT). Families in the surrounding Upton/Druid Heights neighborhood will benefit year round.

On Friday, June 6, 2014, when students left for the weekend, they got a last look at an unadorned field that had been their only option for decades.

In the days that followed, the field was filled with hundreds of Laureate-led volunteers assisted by co-builders from UMB, HSCT and the local community and by 6:45 p.m. on Tuesday, June 10— it was time for a ribbon cutting!

Volunteers were joined by dignitaries including: Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein and City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young to celebrate completion of the project. Also on hand were SSW Dean Richard Barth; Bronwyn Mayden, Promise Heights executive director and SSW assistant dean; Rachel Donegan, Promise Heights program director; and Kevin Enright, executive director of strategic initiatives, School of Medicine (SOM).

Laureate’s founder and chief executive officer, Douglas Becker, addressed a crowd of about 400 men, women and children, many wearing “Here for Good” T-shirts from Laureate.

“It’s a great honor to give back to the community that has given me— and Laureate Education— so much,” said Becker, a Baltimore native. “We are committed to doing work that is here for good in every community in which we operate.”

Laureate provides undergraduate, graduate and working-adult education through online and campus-based programs in 29 countries. Nearly 300 of its global executives came together on Build Day, arriving on buses that lined up at 507 W. Preston Street.

Speakers included HSCT Assistant Principal Twanda Pickett and Principal Harold Barber, who said the new playground “will help foster that sense of community that we cherish.”

HSCT draws more than 400 children from Upton/Druid Heights, where about half of the families live in poverty, according to Baltimore City Health Department data. Through a Promise Neighborhoods federal planning grant, UMB’s Promise Heights initiative works to empower residents and improve the lives of children from before birth to age 21.

HSCT is one of two public schools in Upton-Druid Heights that is a Community School, partnering with SSW. Its Community School coordinator, Henriette Taylor, prepared for Build Day with the assistance of Promise Heights interns at HSCT.

“They were so happy to help out the HSCT, the students, Promise Heights and the community,” said Joyce Green, an Upton resident and neighborhood liaison to the Baltimore City Police. “It was awesome. In a little over six hours, 300-plus people turned an open green space into a safe place for kids at the community and the school to play.”

“This Build Day is a perfect example of what our Community Schools program does in Baltimore,” says Barth. “We bring in resources and give other people the privilege and joy of contributing to the success of the schools that we support.”

HSCT parents were a big presence, led by Mark Atkinson and Lakisha Bagwell. Residents of nearby McCulloh Homes and Green Willow apartments came, too.

From UMB, Ebenezer Oloyede, clinical research specialist at the School of Pharmacy, treated volunteers’ ailments as SOM’s Vanessa Carroll, director of special projects, assisted. SOM assistant professor Yvette Rooks, MD, pitched in by donating lunches for 200 and 450 kids' gift bags.

Members of Union Baptist Church, a faith-based partner of Promise Heights, volunteered on several days. On Wednesday, June 11, Senior Pastor Alvin Hathaway and church member Carol Jones returned to watch the children playing during recess.

At first look, students squealed and leaped while others gasped in awe. Next they were given the rules. “One person to a slide, no flips from the swings,” lectured a physical education instructor. At last cleared to play, children flew onto the shiny equipment.

They lined up to whoosh down slides and some ventured onto a zip line.

Barth went back to the playground on weekend after with his granddaughter. They found nearly 50 children swinging, sliding and climbing. “The playground was bubbling with joy and hope,” he said