Two years ago, neighbors from all over West Baltimore gathered to celebrate the groundbreaking of a new community engagement center at 16 S. Poppleton St. After a lengthy relocation, a full renovation, and a global pandemic neighbors gathered once again to finally open the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (UMB) new Community Engagement Center (CEC).
West Baltimore community members, UMB faculty, staff, and students, and leaders from across the state of Maryland gathered Oct. 28 to celebrate this highly anticipated grand opening. The new CEC is the cornerstone of UMB’s Community Campus, a location and concept that demonstrates a deep commitment to strengthening West Baltimore in collaboration with the neighbors who live there.
Working hand in hand with community leaders and neighbors, UMB has reimagined the historic building into an architecturally stunning, 20,000-square-foot space complete with a large event space; a dance and movement studio; private consultation rooms; and a robust computer lab. The expansion and relocation of UMB’s CEC is in response to more than 45,000 recorded visits from men, women, teens, and children who have engaged with its services and programming since the original CEC opened in 2015.
“This new center is a place that our community deserves,” said Ashley Valis, MSW, UMB’s executive director of strategic initiatives and community engagement and a resident of West Baltimore. “Together, we have imagined, planned, brainstormed, and convened many residents to deliver a new center that will be a fun, educational, relaxing, respectful, and transformational space for our neighbors.”
In the lot across the street from the new building UMB leadership hosted an outdoor, ceremony to commemorate the opening and allow attendees to experience “A Day in the Life” at the new CEC. The event began with a warm welcome from UMB President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS. He opened with a quote from the late Congressman Elijah Cummings who attended the opening of the original CEC back in 2015.
“I remember when [Elijah Cummings] was here to cut the first ribbon, on our first Community Engagement Center across the street there,” said Jarrell. “Some of you may remember what he said during the opening. He said, ‘We may not see the full benefit of things that we’re doing today. We never may be thanked for all we’ve done, or for what you have all done. But there will be children whose trajectory and destinies have already been changed by what you’re doing here today, and I want for this to be a model for the nation.’”
During the ceremony, attendees also heard from former UMB president and University System of Maryland (USM) Chancellor Jay A. Perman, MD. It was under Perman’s leadership that UMB began to work in tandem with West Baltimore neighbors to visualize and build an engagement center for the community. He thanked the neighbors for trusting UMB and for their help in making the center a reality.
“When I talk about the power of a university, engaging with its community, I talk about the center,” he said. “It’s a moral obligation of our public institutions and universities to be anchor institutions in the communities they call home. When I talk about living a mission of service and partnership and equity and opportunity, I talk about this corner of West Baltimore, and everything that we have done here together.”
Following Perman’s remarks, Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott presented Jarrell, Valis, and CEC director Tyrone Roper, MSW, with an official certificate of recognition from the city.
“It’s only right that we acknowledge the progress of this center which was done side by side with our community leaders,” said Scott. “That’s a true demonstration of community engagement. We can see we have so many members of our community represented here today. This just proves that this project is not just in the community, but of the community.”
Attendees were invited after the ceremony to experience the many resources, programs, and activities the CEC has to offer at tables set up around the lot. This included a Wellness table to learn about the CEC health services, a Police Athletics/Activities League (PAL) program table to meet PAL police officers, a tax prep table, a workforce development table, a CURE Scholars table, a virtual walk-through table, and a giveaway table where attendees could pick up informational flyers and CEC swag.
Ten-year-old A’rya Myers was very excited to check out the Maker’s Studio table, which had a 3D printer and 3D pens that community members could use to make their own T-shirts and tote bags.
“I love coming here and doing fun things with my friends,” said A’rya as she added the finishing touches to her homemade T-shirt. “I asked my mom if I could be part of the Youth Maker’s Program so I can come here after school all the time and learn how to make things.”
A’rya was one of many neighbors, of all ages, who enjoyed the activities and games at the grand opening. The feeling of community and comradery was electric, and many neighbors expressed excitement for the new center to be officially opened and operating.
“This center is everything to the neighborhood,” said Charlotte McGoines a resident of the Franklin Square neighborhood. “We meet friends here, we develop relationships here, and it’s just so nice. I’ve met so many friendly and nice people, and I wouldn’t do anything else but come here if I could, because it’s just that much fun and there is so much to do and experience.”
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