Instead of roaming Baltimore City’s streets last Halloween, Kenneth Franklin, a 17-year-old Upland resident, spent his holiday evening playing basketball and lifting weights in his neighborhood Druid Hill Y Center.

The decision may have saved his young life.

Days later, Franklin discovered that one of his fellow Y friends had been shot and killed Halloween night. “That could’ve been me, if I hadn’t come here,” the young man said of his after-school hub for the last three years.

Yet Franklin’s safe haven and the recreational mecca for many area youth is housed in a dated building that, though historic, is in dire need of renovations. Realizing the necessity to preserve the Druid Hill Y – one of the oldest in the country and in 1918 the only venue with a colored-only swimming pool – its parent organization, the Y of Central Maryland, is dedicating proceeds from their annual fundraiser to begin the final phase of restoration for the family center.

“It’s a very old building but we’ve done a good job of maintaining it,” said Gregg Phillips, the Druid Hill Y Center’s executive director. The center needs refurbished restrooms, plumbing upgrades and a modernized family game room – constructions that will begin next month as soon as they raise funds, he said.

Y leaders are also hoping to garner additional funding to create a youth-operated radio station at the behest of residents in the surrounding community who suggested the station when the Druid Hill Center sent out input surveys three years ago.

Dr. Mel Brennan, district executive director of Baltimore City Y Centers, said Druid Hill’s neighbors are stakeholders in its development. The center’s revitalization projects began last year, when city volunteers helped renovate the gymnasium, fitness center and several other rooms. Through the Central Y’s fundraiser and in-kind donations, they raised $300,000 for the renewal projects and several Baltimore-area contractors donated services.

Upon completion of the final phase of the Druid Hill revitalization, the center will spill growth and enrichment efforts into the surrounding community, commencing community projects six blocks in every direction – planting trees and picking up trash during a weeklong celebratory event in April.

The parent Y’s major funding source is a yearly breakfast in Martin Luther King Jr.’s name hosted at rotating family centers and featuring a prominent speaker. This year’s event, held Jan. 29 in the newly renovated gymnasium at the Druid Hill Y, featured Dr. Carnell Cooper, a surgery professor and the founder of the Baltimore City Violence Protection Program.

Cooper said too many young people repeatedly come into his hospital bearing bullet or stab wounds. “Maybe with the right support services (like the Druid Hill Y) we can intervene and maybe save their life,” he said at the breakfast.

As part of the redevelopment project and celebration of MLK’s birthday, active youth of the Druid Hill Y created art projects, including paper cranes and a quilt that are readily displayed throughout the center. The large colorful quilt, embellished with jewels, glitter and empowering words including “Beautiful” and “Dignity,” hangs on a side wall in the gymnasium. Several Chinese paper cranes with wishes interpreting MLK’s legacy etched inside, hang from the center’s lobby ceiling.

Y officials say the Druid Hill Center will continue to be a beacon of hope for its 2,000 members. “If you look at King’s legacy, there are words that come to mind – justice, love and service,” Brennan said. “This is a call to service.”

He said the center is expounding the “meat and potatoes of youth development,” with its career training programs for high-achieving young people, summer camps for homeless teens and mentorship and health and wellness services. “But with this revitalization, we are getting the building ready to meet the expectations and set the cultural tone for service,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, Franklin says the center remains his anchor and venue of choice. He’s a member of the Success Academy Program for troubled youth who are chronically suspended from school and participates in leadership and character development training. He still visits the center outside of program hours.

“I come because I know this is the next safest place to be besides home,” he said.


Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO