By Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,

Angela F. Williams, the first Black woman to head United Way Worldwide, visited South Baltimore on Feb. 7 to see the impact created by United Way of Central Maryland (UWCM) in the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay neighborhoods. 

It was Williams’ first visit here  since taking office in October 2021. 

She saw the influence of UWCM’s Neighborhood Zone initiative on students from Benjamin Franklin High School and the surrounding community in Brooklyn and Curtis Bay. 

“One of the things I always say is that we can’t be saviors, we have to come in as partners, and that’s really important. Then, inviting those who are in the community to help in the creation of solutions is extremely important,” said Williams. 

“This is a great demonstration of that. This program, the way you all are working, is having impact for generations to come, and that’s why I love it.”

In Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, 40 percent of children live in poverty, 25 percent of people do not have a high school diploma or GED and the teen pregnancy rate is more than twice that of Baltimore City. 

UWCM’s Neighborhood Zones blend multi-generational support with social, economic and educational advancement opportunities. 

The program used an on-site family center for student parents, a homelessness prevention program, healthy food access, workforce development, a 24-hour helpline for families and the On Track 4 Success program, which helps students with poor attendance, poor grades or behavior issues get back on track to graduate high school. 

UWCM has also partnered with local organizations, like City of Refuge Baltimore and Rowdy to support its programming. 

Since UWCM created the Neighborhood Zone in Brooklyn, 45 student parents have graduated high school, 172 expectant parents and student parents have been supported, 96 percent of families in danger of homelessness have stayed housed and the population of adults without a high school diploma decreased by 26 percent. 

UWCM has recently expanded the program to the Poppleton neighborhood in West Baltimore and Columbia in Howard County. 

One person Williams heard from during the visit was John Burton, an alumnus of Benjamin Franklin High School. 

Burton was raised by his grandmother and experienced homelessness while attending the school. He planned on dropping out until he was introduced to Heather Chapman, vice president of UWCM’s Neighborhood Zones. 

He said being a part of the program helped him find not only value in school but in himself, and he became the first person in his family to graduate from high school aside from his grandmother. 

Burton’s now on track to graduate college in May. 

“This is a program that needs to happen because I don’t know how many other people are similar to my situation, but if they are, they need this program,” said Burton.

I think it should absolutely keep going on. I am the product of it. I’m now living the life that I want to live, and it’s crazy. I couldn’t see this before, but I am so happy that things have panned out this way.” 

Megan Sayles is a Report for America corps member.