Local mental health educator launches ‘Black Mental Wellness Lounge’ web series

This year has been historic for a number of reasons, including the coronavirus pandemic, which has highlighted significant racial health disparities. Community leaders and physicians have directed much of their efforts and advocacy toward mental health reform in the Black community.

A local mental health educator saw this time as a perfect opportunity to create a web series centered around providing vital resources particularly for the Black community.

Brandon Johnson, creator of a newly launched Black mental health-focused web series, is a devoted advocate who has spent the last seven years of his professional career fighting for mental health reform.

Johnson’s web series, the ‘Black Mental Health Lounge,’ launched in early July and will contain an assortment of YouTube videos with valuable resources and tips that have a target Black audience. Thus far, there are three videos posted on the YouTube channel.

The web series will feature exclusive interviews with leading experts and guests in the field and will explore a variety of topics pertaining to mental health, including trauma, distance learning for children, coping with racism and discrimination, and a list of others.

“I started it basically from a need that I was seeing in our community with the COVID-19 happening and people being disproportionately impacted by COVID- 19 in terms of cases [and] deaths, and then we saw the uprisings that were happening as a result of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” Johnson said, explaining why he started the web series.

The law enforcement-related murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are two of many traumatic cases that could have a significant mental health effect on Black people globally.

In addition, for the five or so months that the coronavirus pandemic has struck alarming health concerns in the U.S.,“anxiety and depression have increased significantly among African Americans,” said Johnson, citing research from the CDC and other sources.

“There was so much stress and anxiety and pain that was happening on my social media timelines from friends, from family, people that I knew, people that were really being impacted by these things, and just feeling stressed out and feeling a sense of hopelessness,” said Johnson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Morgan State University and a master’s degree in health science from Johns Hopkins. “I wanted to create something specifically for the Black community because we deal with things differently, we have different impacts. Obviously racism and discrimination are big ones, but we face issues in healthcare and in housing in different ways than in cultures so I wanted to make it very specific.”

Johnson said he wasn’t sure whether he will start a nonprofit with the same mission as his web series, explaining that he’d first have to examine how many people find his resources useful at the moment.

As a volunteer for the Black Mental Health Alliance and the Green Heart Community and a contributor for the Black Minds Collaborative, Johnson has fought tirelessly for positive mental health and suicide prevention services for youth and adults nationally and locally.

Furthermore, Johnson says he will soon join the Hyattsville-based “A Beautiful Mind Foundation” in an advisory role.

At some point, Johnson hopes to develop an online hub and resource for information— perhaps, a Black Mental Wellness Lounge website or something related thereto. He does however use his social media pages to direct audiences to the web series. Johnson can be followed on Instagram @branjjohnson and on Twitter @BranJJohnson1.

As one who serves on the youth ministry of Morning Star Baptist Church in Woodlawn, Johnson has made concerted efforts to ensure the young people are holding up well, especially in the midst of this difficult time.

In the coming weeks, Johnson plans to roll out more content that will bring awareness to the specific mental health needs, challenges and assets of Black people as he emerges as another voice for Black mental health advocacy in the Baltimore area.

Johnson has prepared to bring guests into the web series throughout August and September to have much-needed conversations on a range of subject matters, one of which being grief in the Black community, and another addressing the impact of criminal justice on mental health.

He also plans to conduct a panel video featuring young Black professionals in the field to offer advice and experiences for prospective mental health experts. Another video will target the religious community, focusing on Black mental wellness and faith.

“There aren’t enough spaces to talk particularly about Black mental health. And so I really wanted to create something that we could do that anybody could watch and look at and get helpful information and tips from,” he said. “I hope that this becomes a really useful and well-utilized resource.”

Local nonprofit makes connection between honey bees and music

Beyond the Natural Foundation (BTNF), a local nonprofit based in southwest Baltimore, has recently provided a unique educational experience for some of the youth in its music program.

On the morning of July 28 2020, a small group of middle schoolers from BTNF visited a local apiary at Stillmeadow Community Fellowship Church to examine colonies of about 120,000 honey bees. Students put on protective clothing and got an up-close look at the bees while learning the crucial value the insects have on the environment.

As the day transpired, apiarist (beekeeper) Bill Castro led the educational activities as he constantly emphasized to the students not to be afraid of bees, but to have a healthy respect for bees.

Apiarist Bill Castro holding up a beehive in the apiary at Stillmeadow Community Fellowship Church in Baltimore.

Courtesy Photo

Apiarist Bill Castro holding up a beehive in the apiary at Stillmeadow Community Fellowship Church in Baltimore.

“What I do try is to provide an opportunity for the kids to be exposed to honey bees, and what the benefits are; but not only honey bees but all pollinators— could be wasps, hornets, bumbles and all the multitude of bees that live in and around Maryland,” said Castro, the founder of Bee Friendly Apiary.

Thanks to honey bees, humans can consume diverse ranges of fruits and vegetables as a result of pollination, added Castro. Following the 20-minute beekeeping session at the apiary, BTNF students went indoors for honey sampling to conclude the lesson for the day.

One of BTNF’s foundational principles is providing expressive therapy outlets and engagement opportunities through music. The program’s summer music camp serves youth in the second through seventh grades, and is led by Robert Levine, the founder and executive director of BTNF.

One may wonder what connection music has to bees. Levine, one who is quite familiar with various elements of music, made the perfect correlation.

“We tell our kids music is life, and in order to really understand the totality of life and to understand the totality of creation as it relates to bees, the honey bees in particular, their lives are based on working and building so that we ultimately have food to eat,” Levine said.

“So it’s great to be able to make that connection for our children so that they can understand everything in our creation is connected, it’s dependent on each other so it just helps them understand more about their lives overall.”

Levine said he hopes his campers came away more informed about nature and bees, and not to be so consumed in the common belief that the insects are innately harmful creatures.

Bill Castro holds a jar of honey from a beehive for a BTNF camper to sample.

Courtesy Photo

Bill Castro holds a jar of honey from a beehive for a BTNF camper to sample.

Kenneth Andrews, a rising eight grader at Beechfield Elementary/Middle School, was one of the participants. He is an aspiring computer scientist and pianist.

Before the learning experience about bees, Andrews said he didn’t know they could be so calm. He expressed how much he enjoyed learning about honey bees, saying that was the best educational activity he has had at the camp thus far after being informed on the immense value of and essence bees.

“I didn’t know bees could be so calm, I thought they just stung you for no reason,” said Andrews, who has been in the BTNF summer program since last year. “Today has to be the best because I was afraid of bees and I was allergic to the poison that they give when they sting you, so this has to be the best day.”

Through BTNF, students grasp the art of songwriting, production and audio- engineering as a platform for positive self-expression. Also, the program aims to promote campaigns such as anti- bullying and anti-violence.

BTNF also provides musical instruments and scholarships for qualifying students. The organization can be followed on Instagram at btn_foundation and on Facebook at @btnfoundation. Learn more by visiting https://www.beyondthenatural.org/.

Vehicle for Change gives away 20 cars in celebration of 20th anniversary

Vehicles for Change (VFC), a nonprofit headquartered in Halethorpe, celebrated its 20th anniversary by joining longtime partner Heritage Mileone Autogroup by presenting 20 families with vehicles in special giveaway ceremonies on June 24, 2020.

One of the organization’s primary focuses is to put less fortunate families on the path to self-sufficiency through its sustainable car award program and re-entry training program.

Steve Fader hands keys to Brittaney Nelson, a mom of 20-month-old twins from Prince George’s County.

Courtesy Photo

Steve Fader hands keys to Brittaney Nelson, a mom of 20-month-old twins from Prince George’s County.

According to its website, VFC has awarded more than 6,000 cars to low-income families since 1999. The vehicle giveaway on June 24, 2020 was a two-part celebration. The first ceremony was in the morning when Listra Williams, a certified nursing assistant at Northwest Hospital in Randallstown, was pleasantly surprised with a vehicle during her shift at work.

Northwest Hospital president, Craig Carmichael, joined MileOne Autogroup Chief Operations Officer Scott Fader and VFC Executive Director and founder Marty Schwartz in handing Williams keys to her car. The 19 remaining recipients were given cars at the main ceremony in the afternoon at Heritage Toyota in Owings Mills.

“A car impacts a family that is just unlike anything else so it really makes an enormous difference,” said Schwartz, also the founder of VFC. “Our statistics show that 75 percent of families that get a car from us within the first 12 months of car ownership increase their annual salary by $7,500.”

The partnership between Mile One and VFC dates back five years. Steve Fader, president and CEO of Mile One, reached out to Schwartz and his team with intentions of furthering the mission of facilitating car ownership in the Baltimore area.

“Vehicles are transformational— go to work, go to the doctor’s, go to the grocery store. When you don’t have a vehicle, your life becomes very difficult,” Fader said. “So we love this partnership and we look forward to continuing it for years.”

VFC and Mile One also partners in training formerly incarcerated individuals to become auto mechanics. In addition to donating dozens of vehicles to VFC, Mile One has contributed $75,000 this year to the nonprofit, according to Fader.

The afternoon ceremony was relatively brief, and included remarks from Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young, Schwartz, Fader and others.

“This is something that is very, very important for young people and families who don’t have cars,” Young said, acknowledging the philanthropic efforts of VFC and Mile One. “You can connect with your cars in anywhere you want to go, whether it’s work, whether it’s taking your kids to an amusement park, whether it’s to ride just for fun. This is really a wonderful, wonderful gesture by your (Fader’s) team.”

Brittaney Nelson, a young mother with twin toddlers, was one of the event’s special recipients. She had been without reliable transportation for well over a year, and had spent roughly $700 to $800 a month for Uber rides.

Nelson said the gift from VFC was the push and change needed to put her life back in order, adding that she will also have the time and opportunity to complete on-campus college courses with goals of obtaining a long-sought-after degree in business administration from the University of Maryland Global Campus.

“It means a lot to me, it means a lot to my kids. I’ll be able to spend a lot more time with them and a lot less time on public transportation,” said Nelson, a Prince George’s County resident who was given a 2010 Ford SE. “This gift of a vehicle means so much more than just transportation. It’s been my symbol of restoration. I now feel capable, I feel like everything I’ve had to place on the backburner is now possible and within my grasp.”

Aleeseea Jones, a full-time employee at Wal-Mart, is an incoming sophomore at Liberty University and resident of Garrett County – a rural region of the state with a very limited public transit system. Jones relied on her parents and grandparents to get around.

“I definitely appreciate an organization donating cars, because every business is out there to make money but they’re doing this kind gesture for low-income families,” said the 19-year-old who received a 2012 Nissan Versa. “Having this car and getting that sense of independence is really nice.”

After an executive citation was presented to VFC on behalf of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, the recipients were told to stand by their vehicles as they were acknowledged by Schwartz.

Families were then told to step in their vehicles and start their engines as a celebratory gesture to conclude the afternoon.

For additional information about Vehicles for Change, a list of qualifications and criteria to receive a vehicle through VFC’s car award program or to donate a vehicle, visit: www.vehiclesforchange.org or call


Seniors unite for protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter movement

A passionate group of elderly individuals celebrated Juneteenth by outwardly expressing their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in a silent protest just beyond the premises of the Linden Park senior living facility in Bolton Hill on June 19, 2020.

Dale McCullough, organizer of the silent demonstration, stands in the middle of the circle of protestors to give remarks

Demetrius Dillard

Dale McCullough, organizer of the silent demonstration, stands in the middle of the circle of protestors to give remarks

About 20 participants, most of whom were older than 70 and served in the military, assembled for the brief protest on the cloudy Friday afternoon.

Dale McCullough, the organizer of the silent protest, said he didn’t coordinate the event for publicity. Rather, he and some of the residents at Linden Park Apartments simply wanted to take a few minutes to show support for the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in light of the societal issues facing the nation over the last several weeks.

“We, the citizens of Bolton Hill, we sit around and we talk a lot about what could be and what would be, so we decided that we’d come out and show our solidarity to the Black Lives Matter (movement),” McCullough said, also conveying his disagreement with President Donald Trump’s threat to deploy military troops against protestors. “We did kneel for the brothers that have died behind police brutality. And not only brothers— black, brown and white too, who have died behind police brutality.”

Ronald Curtis dons an

Demetrius Dillard

Ronald Curtis dons an “I Can’t Breathe” Black Lives Matter t-shirt to show support for the demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice.

To begin the protest, participants stood in a circle as McCullough delivered opening remarks indicating the purpose of the gathering. As Yolanda Preston delivered the invocation, those who were able to kneel did so, and those who weren’t able to kneel stood with fists held high.

“We want it to be known to the young folks we can’t march too much, we can’t lay in the street because we can’t get up,” McCullough said with a slight chuckle. “We just want to let people know that ‘we are with you.’ That’s it.”

After Preston finished the prayer, kneelers stood up and the protest was essentially over. McCullough thanked everyone who took the time to participate and show support as the demonstration concluded.

Benjamin Fulton, an 85-year-old Korean War veteran, was the oldest protester to participate. Drafted into the Korean War in 1958, he served in the Army for three years.

“I’m coming out today protesting what they’ve been doing to black people,” said Fulton as he explained his support for the BLM protests. “Nothing’s going to change with the policemen until (leaders) do something about it. Policemen don’t have the right to kill people just because they’re policemen.”

West Baltimore resident Ronald Curtis was invited to participate in the silent protest, and gladly made the trip across town to show solidarity. He said that what he’s seeing now is a reflection of the uprisings he witnessed as a youngster in the 1950s and 60s.

“The younger generation that’s coming up now, they’re actually tired. If Congress doesn’t hear their voices now, they never will,” said Curtis, another Vietnam War vet. “These kids are not being heard, and that’s what it’s all about right now.”

Juneteenth is a day that holds special significance particularly in the black community as a commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the U.S., and McCullough figured it was the perfect date to organize the silent protest.

“It’s a day that the last chains were supposedly taken off the slaves in Texas. They said 1865 but they really didn’t come off until 1867,” he said. “I thought it was very significant… It was a good day that just so happened to be in June, and June 19 was available so I think that was the perfect day to hold it.”

McCullough, a Navy veteran, served in the Vietnam War and retired as a 2nd Class Petty Officer. He said he feels the country is in an unpredictable state and hopes things improve soon.

“It’s disgusting right now because our parents and their parents were fighting for the same thing that these kids are marching for now,” McCullough opined. “It’s troubling because we don’t know where the nation is going. I’m not political, but we don’t have any leadership and aye we pray that it goes the right way.”

Baltimore City College student athletes earn distinguished ‘Minds in Motion’ scholarship award

Of the 650 applicants for the 2020 “Minds in Motion” scholarship presented by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) and Allstate Foundation, only 18 student athletes throughout the state were picked as winners, and of those 18, two Baltimore City College students earned scholarship honors.

Three-sport athlete Grace Pula and baseball standout Leo Rubinson, both graduating seniors from City College, were named winners of the award after the list was announced by the MPSSAA on May 18.

Since 2008, the ‘Minds in Motion” scholarship has been presented annually to student athletes who have shown tremendous initiative in the classroom and their respective sports.

Leo Rubinson

Courtesy Photo/ Mark Miazga

Leo Rubinson

The criteria for the applicants was that they had to be seniors with a minimum 3.25 unweighted GPA and participants in interscholastic athletic activities sponsored by the MPSSAA during their high school careers.

City athletic director Rolynda Contee recommended that Rubinson and Pula apply for the scholarship, along with several other student-athletes.

Contee, who is in her third year as AD, said she was excited to hear two of her student-athletes received award honors.

“It just goes to show that our athletes work very hard at City College on and off the court,” Contee said. “The fact that those athletes were able to multitask, still be able to get good grades and still excel in their respective sport actually speaks a lot of volumes about City College.”

Pula expressed similar sentiments.

“It was really great to see us being recognized and not overshadowed like we usually are,” said Pula, who was glad to win the award with her childhood friend.

“And it was also great to win it with Leo because Leo and I [have] gone to school together since kindergarten. Like we were best friends in elementary school, so it was really nice to win it with him too.”

Pula registered a 4.0 GPA. With the advanced courses she took, her weighted GPA is about 5.28, she said. She excelled in soccer, swim and lacrosse all four years at City.

Some of Pula’s athletic accomplishments include: leading goal scorer on the girls lacrosse and soccer teams for two seasons; received MVP honors for lacrosse and soccer teams; soccer team captain since sophomore year and lacrosse team captain since junior year.

Pula led her lacrosse teams to city championships her freshman, sophomore and junior seasons. In lacrosse, Pula played at the center position. In soccer, she mainly played at center-back and in swim competed in various freestyle, back stroke and relay events.

For the entire school year, Pula was occupied with sports but was able to manage being a full-time athlete and student, on top of covering athletics for the school newspaper, The Collegian, serving as a student ambassador, and being a member of the environmental club and honor society.

“I honestly think that being so busy helped me maintain my grades,” Pula said. “I was trying to be a good example for my teammates, I wanted to make my family proud, I also wanted to make my teachers proud as well so I just kept pushing.”

Pula will continue her studies at the University of Maryland-College Park, where she plans to compete in club soccer and lacrosse. Likewise, Rubinson will attend Maryland in the fall.

“It was really exciting,” Rubinson said of winning the $1000 scholarship.

“It made me feel grateful for the mentors that I had at City and everything I was able to accomplish.”

Rubinson nearly made all A’s, logging a 3.98 GPA (roughly a 5.3 weighted GPA). With the baseball program, he was a third baseman and an outfielder, but primarily pitched.

For the 2017 season, Rubinson led the Knights to their first city championship in more than two decades by pitching a no-hitter through five innings. When City won the city title again after an undefeated 2019 regular season, Rubinson recorded three hits and two RBI. He also led the team in strikeouts.

Outside of school and sports, Rubinson is involved with the No Boundaries Coalition, a nonprofit focused on improving equity in communities that make up Central West Baltimore. He has been with No Boundaries Coalition for four years, and is mostly involved with the food justice segment of the organization.

City baseball coach Mark Miazga was beyond proud when he learned Rubinson won the Minds in Motion scholarship.

“Leo has been an integral part of our baseball program over the past four years, and just a tremendous athlete and someone who has brought great success to our program,” said Miazga, also an English teacher.

“He’s certainly a perfectionist, he’s certainly someone who wants to work really hard on his writing and he never… has low expectations for himself.”

At UMD, Rubinson will major in either business or economics with hopes of competing in club baseball.

“He’s gonna be great at whatever he desires to do because he’s just such a hard worker,” Miazga said of Rubinson. “He’s someone that I really respect not only as a player, but as a person.”

#OnAPositiveNote Local Community Leaders Remain On A Positive Note Despite Worsening Public Health crisis

Over the past three weeks, the state of Maryland has been overwhelmed with escalating public health concerns. In the midst of intensifying public anxiety, a local partnership has brought hope to Baltimoreans affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

Jason Bass

Devin Allen

Jason Bass

The Night Brunch, a vibrant pop-up dining series led by Jason Bass, has partnered with Hotel Revival, a boutique inn located in Mount Vernon, to provide vital resources to numerous community members in addition to a good deal of Baltimore’s service industry workers.

Since The Night Brunch began two years ago, it has used Hotel Revival for two of its events, which was the beginning of what has been a long-standing partnership.

The prime focus of The Night Brunch is striving to create spaces and experiences through food, music, and community by uniting various sectors of Baltimore City with ‘night brunches.’

However, since the COVID-19 has virtually put the globe at a standstill, community leaders such as Bass have been forced to take alternative approaches—largely involving charitable action—to continue influencing Baltimore in a positive way.

“Once this pandemic came into place, of course our focus had to change,” said Bass, the CEO and co-founder of The Night Brunch along with Ryan Rhodes. “We had to figure out ways of how to help the people who we would normally bring together, and that’s how I was able to then pivot and bring Night Brunch back—not as an event—but a way for us to really contact the community, engage the community better.”

Since the virus has spread into Maryland, subsequently leading to thousands of Baltimoreans who have been laid off and the shutdown of several local eateries and bars, Hotel Revival has designated a segment of its first-floor bar as a donation and distribution center. Another portion of the hotel’s first floor serves as a space for pop-up restaurants and food vendors to cook and process delivery orders.

Hotel Revival to distribute bagged lunches and produce to those in need last Friday

Devin Allen

Hotel Revival to distribute bagged lunches and produce to those in need last Friday

Additionally, The Night Brunch’s partners at Hungry Harvest are providing fresh produce and discounted monthly memberships for those in need. According to Bass, The Night Brunch served 500 free lunches last week, took about 250 packed lunches and produce bags to a few senior centers in East Baltimore and provided Mera Kitchen Collective with free produce as well.

The project’s giveaways and food supply drives over the past few weeks have been made possible by food donations. The Night Brunch continues to use its online platforms to solicit donations for something called the Baltimore Service Industry Fund—a charitable enterprise set up to supply food and resources to the countless individuals affected by COVID-19.

“The goal was really to provide an immediate solution to the problem of Baltimore service industry [workers] being laid off,” Bass said. “If we can keep the help of having strong partners, like the hotel and food suppliers, I think we can start to feed a few thousand people a week.”

Night Brunch hopes to host two supply drives this week, added Bass, owner of Kiss Tomorrow Hello, a local marketing agency. Since Gov. Larry Hogan has issued a stay-at-home order effective March 30, Bass said he and other collaborators will create a registration system for food pick-up as a precautionary measure.

Donte Johnson, general manager of Hotel Revival, has collaborated with Bass to continue giving the people of Baltimore a reason to celebrate something positive. The hospitality industry executive had one question in mind when he, Bass and a host of others began the initiative.

“How can we at that hotel, not so much focus on the day-to-day business of running the hotel, but focus on what are the needs and wants of our community and how can we meet those needs?,” Johnson said. “That’s been an ongoing commitment since day one here. This unfortunate circumstance just creates an environment where those needs have to be amplified, particularly for the people who might be underserved or the people who are most impacted.”

Prioritizing the needs of the people affected while providing free space for pop-up food and beverage purveyors has been the cornerstone of Johnson’s and Bass’ commitment to public servitude.

Moreover, the hotel’s rooms are being offered to provide accommodations “to people on the front lines fighting this fight,” according to Johnson.

“For us, it’s really a matter of how can we be a good neighbor, a good partner, a good support of the people who are really doing the heroic stuff that’s going to get us through this,” Johnson continued. “It’s just an opportunity for us to do what we normally do, but do it in a way that makes a huge difference.”

About the Baltimore Times #OnAPositiveNote Campaign: Amid ongoing public health concerns prompted by the spread of the coronavirus, the Baltimore Times is committed to highlighting the positive efforts of local influential figures, organizations and otherwise devoted to gathering support for initiatives prioritizing community over commerce.