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The children of the Reservoir Hill section of Baltimore play less than a mile away from the CVS that was set ablaze during violent protests on Monday. They say that they have had enough; they are ready to see change in their neighborhood.
“I feel mad because they [looters] are destroying our community,” 11-year-old Asia told NBCBLK.
Asia’s grandmother used to get her medications at the devastated CVS and it makes her nervous to think about what her grandmother will now have to do to pick up her prescriptions.
“It makes me feel sad and scared because people are blowing things up,” said nine-year-old Ma’qui. “They [looters] are blowing things up, they are throwing bricks at cops, and they was right around the corner from my home and that made me feel unsafe and scared.”
Ma’qui said her mother has been crying over the safety of Ma’qui and her siblings all week.
“The people that are rioting, I would like them to change for the better not the worse,” said 11-year-old Jamel. He doesn’t understand why protestors would get violent even after the Gray family publicly denounced looting in response to their son’s death.
“I want to live in a place that’s not trash. I want to only live in a clean city,” said six-year old Dante.
Dante said he is mad and doesn’t feel like he can trust policemen.
Asia, Ma’qui, Jamel, and Dante are just four of the forty-two children in Reservoir Hill that attend an afterschool program for kids ages 5 to 14 at the St. Francis Neighborhood Center where they do their homework, make art, play, and are fed dinner during the week.
According to a survey taken upon enrollment in the youth program, 100 percent of the children served at St. Francis live below the poverty line, attend Title 1 schools, and receive food stamps. 25 percent of the students recently experienced, or are currently experiencing, homelessness.
This week the kids are discussing Freddie Gray, the looting that took place in their backyards, and the community they want to live in.
“If I was Mayor, I would fire all the policeman who are not here to help,” suggested Ma’qui. “I would get some police officers that are here to help people—if they see them on the streets they will grab them and help them and take them to a shelter or something or give them food,” she said.
For those who run the St. Francis after school programming, it is Ma’qui’s optimism and hope, which is shared by the other children in the program, that highlights why it is important to talk to young people about the social issues in their communities.
“I want to live in a place that’s not trash. I want to only live in a clean city.”
“The children in this community are up against so many things. If you think about something as simple as their daily walk to school, they have to face going through neighborhoods that are rundown, vacant homes, people selling drugs, just basically being exposed to so many negative facts of life,” said Bridget Blount who until January ran the neighborhood center’s after school programs and now serves in a consultant role.
“It’s cliché but they [kids] are our future, so if you can get them now to understand difficult social issues and how they can act as a change agent in their community, that can impact their future success,” she said.
According to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, the percentage of children living below the poverty line in Reservoir Hill is 47 percent (1,400 kids), which is 15 percent higher than in Baltimore City. The community also suffers a significantly greater family poverty rate at 34 percent, compared to Baltimore City’s rate of 18 percent.
Communications and programs director, Torbin Green, said that teaching children who are growing up in such harsh conditions how to engage in conversations around social issues such as poverty, police brutality, hunger, or civil unrest, at a young age, is important so that they know how to recognize and address these challenges later on as adults.
Learning how to communicate with peers as well as authority figures is one reason Holly Lee sends her 12 and seven-year-old sons to the neighborhood center.
“The people that are rioting, I would like them to change for the better not the worse,”
“I was a child that was shut down I didn’t openly talk to my parents,” Lee said. “I didn’t want to go to my mother, she wasn’t approachable or loveable, but now I try as a parent to make sure my boys know ‘I love you and I’m going to keep you as close and safe as I can.’”
Hearing about Freddie Gray hit home for Lee, who could imagine her two sons facing police brutality.
“When this stuff happened I said to my boys, ’see this is what happens when you run from the police and don’t do what they asked you to do,’” she said. “The reality is when young boys run or do whatever they are doing, not responding to what the police say, it makes the police upset.”
On Tuesday, Lee took her two sons to the destroyed CVS where they took pictures and looked at the damage. Lee also traveled to downtown Baltimore to take pictures of the National Guard to show her boys so that they could have a conversation about what was going on.
“In 30 years, I hope they look back and say I remember when my mother carried me up to CVS when this man got shot by the police and the whole city went crazy,” she said. She hopes they will tell their sons, “my mom took us there and this is what I don’t want to see happen to you as my children.”
In the meantime, Lee hopes that her sons will continue to talk and grow while participating in the St. Francis after school program.
“They are teaching young people how to talk to each other, how to come to adults and say they are having a problem, and most young black guys don’t know how to come say something is wrong.”
Together, Lee’s sons, Asia, Ma’qui, Jamel, and Dante will continue to meet after school shaping their minds and the world they want live in.