Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center earns national attention after riots

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— When the rededication of the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood took place last month, some residents may not even have noticed.

In the wake of the death of Freddie Gray and the ensuing unrest, the neighborhood became a flashpoint for all that was wrong in Baltimore.

Throughout the chaos, the center, which was built in 1976, continued to open its doors for local children, helping them to grow and to escape the violence in the area.

Still, it seemed to escape nearly everyone’s attention that the “J” in Jones had been missing from the lettering on the building until Helena Hicks, the sister of the center’s namesake, noticed and summoned the Department of Recreation and Parks to replace it.

Despite the large contingent of national and local media in the area covering the protests and riots, the center and all the good it represents went largely ignored.

Until recently, National Public Radio (NPR) profiled the neighborhood anchor and reminded everyone of all the good that takes place there.

“We are mom, dad, aunt, cousin,” said the center’s director Brandi Murphy.

“[The children] come here to get what they don’t have at home. There are some parents that even to this day, I’ve had some kids for two years and still haven’t met them,” Murphy said.

When NPR profiled the center, they noted that adolescent boys play basketball, while a group of girls play Monopoly at a nearby table.

There’s also air hockey, foosball and a computer room in back.

Murphy said there are also swim classes, science lessons, arts and crafts.

But the center gives the kids – students age 5 to 12 who come after school and in the summer – far more than fun things to do.

It gives them a place to call home.

The arrest and death of Gray three months ago laid bare the drug dealing, violence and lack of opportunity that plague Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods. Local recreation centers, which have a long tradition in the city, provide a much-needed refuge.

Located just behind the public housing complex where Gray was arrested, the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center aims to make up for all that’s missing in struggling Sandtown.

Murphy told NPR that many of the children are from a nearby homeless shelter.

Others are being raised by foster families, grandparents or older siblings. She says stressful home lives take a toll.

“You can see the anger in the children. Sometimes it’s hard for them to communicate. It’s hard for them to focus,” Murphy said. “There is no discipline at home, so when you come in and you’re the discipline, sometimes it can be difficult.”

Yet this safe space can help kids cope. Out on the front steps, Stacey Fowlks organized a summer basketball league. The middle-aged man shared fond memories of his time there.

“Most of the folks from this community at some point have stepped foot inside this center. As you can see it’s connected to the elementary school,” Fowlks said. “We had some great leaders over the past that helped groom us to become adults.”

Later, during dinnertime at the center, tacos were served and soon after they finished eating, most of the children signed themselves out and walked home.

But the activities will keep going. A competitive cheerleading team arrived for practice while a group of men hold nightly ping pong matches.

Families even come to host meals after they bury a loved one.

“This place is our community,” said Fowlks, the longtime Sandtown resident, “from the womb to the tomb.”