Salisbury Rising: Programs are cultivating youngsters

Red flowers are 4-year-old Brooklyn Cook’s favorite part of the Hazel Center garden.

When children look for carrots in the garden, when they talk about how much they enjoy the vegetable traditionally shunned by little ones, something is being done right.

That’s certainly the case at the Salvation Army Richard Hazel Youth Center, where youngsters, on a recent sunny afternoon, rushed to the garden they are cultivating, eager to talk to a visitor.

Willie Downing, Director of the Salvation Army’s Richard Hazel Youth Center, is pleased that “things are positively moving forward for the center.”

“We’re learning how to grow all kinds of vegetables and we’re going to expand it,” 10-year-old Christopher Jones said.

“I like the flowers,” 4-year-old Brooklyn Cook added, trying to squeeze between two taller playmates to be noticed.

“I like to eat different vegetables and strawberries. Nobody has to make me eat it. I like it,” 6-year-old Rickelle Simpson-Henry said.

Jada Justice admires the lush plants, too, but the 11-year-old has more of an academic mind and appreciates the help she gets with her homework during the after-school program at the youth center. Math is her favorite subject and she wants to be a scientist and a teacher someday.

Dynetta Fontaine, whose 6-year-old granddaughter Alaina MaGee, goes to the Hazel Center every day after school, praised the staff for everything from help with homework to meals provided to sports instruction from T-ball to basketball.

“That’s the proud Grandma,” a smiling Willie Downing, director, said about Fontaine, who proudly displayed a certificate her granddaughter received.

Last year, there was concern about the Hazel Center closing due to financial shortfalls.

When Maryland Delegate Sheree Sample-Hughes heard about the problem, she called a community meeting and talked to Major Vic Tidman, commanding officer of the Salvation Army. He told her that, during the past decade, the organization failed to meet financial goals set at the national level and needed $100,000.

Funding comes from private donations as well as from the United Way. The youth center also has an endowment from the late local philanthropist Richard Hazel. Sample-Hughes checked on the endowment and was assured it is active, but said Tidman told her there were still unpaid bills, including insurance.

At the time, Pat Tilghman, who serves on the board of directors for the Salvation Army, told the Salisbury Independent only Tidman could answer financial questions, but said there was no danger of the youth center immediately closing.

Sample-Hughes and County Executive Bob Culver talked about the possibility of the county’s Recreation, Parks and Tourism department taking over the center, built in 2002 and located on North Lake Park Drive. The county couldn’t just help financially because the Salvation Army is a religious organization.

“If it closed, we would lose a vital part of our community center. I don’t want to lose that. We definitely do not need that to happen with all the negativity we hear about concerning youth today,” Sample-Hughes said last summer.

In July 2016, Major Gene Hogg, who is in the Salvation Army’s Baltimore office,  issued a news release stating the Salvation Army had no plans to close the youth center.  It was underfunded, he said, and donations were welcome.

To help, Sample-Hughes formed the Hazel’s Haven committee. Members organized a booth at the county fair where they sold chicken and beverages donated by the Pepsi company and raised $3,000, used for roof repair.

“We are still open to volunteers and donations,” Sample-Hughes said this week.

“There are adults who are engaged and who are very interested it the community. If we hadn’t had the unfortunate situation of almost closing the center, we never would have had this much interest from the community. It is very positive. There has been a lot of support,” she said.

Tidman could not be reached for comment.

“A lot of things have been happening,” Downing said.

“We’ve been getting donations to help with the upkeep of the buildings. We had a roof done through different donations. The county is going to help do work on the back of the building, cutting down some unwanted grass and brush. It’s looking up. We have no plans to close.

“Last year a lot of people talked about it, but people know who we are now and a lot of what we do. Some people thought we were part of the county’s recreation and parks department. Some people didn’t even know we were here,” he said.

Kaylianna Lindsay gives a thumbs up sign as she looks over the lush garden she and other children have been cultivating.

“Things are positively moving forward for the center, due in part to the fact that the community is more aware of what the challenges are. Now they are participating in many ways,” Sample-Hughes added.

Local residents have volunteered, equipment was donated for the pool and there have been new appointments to the board.

Eighty-two children aged 3 to 14 are enrolled in the after-school program where they receive meals, play outdoors and grow sunflowers, cucumbers, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, onions, carrots and spinach.

The garden will continue to produce vegetables throughout the summer, with help from the 60 percent of youngsters in the after-school program who will continue in the 11-week summer camp beginning this month, Downing said, adding he’s so content in his position that he doesn’t consider it a job.

“I love it here because of the children,” said Felecia Mitchell, a 17-year veteran of the Salvation Army who works with Downing. “I have seen them grow. I have had some of our children’s children here,” she said. Laughing, she added, “And children will tell you something.”

Richard Turner, a member of the advisory board, who stopped in to give Downing photos of a recent awards banquet, said he was never concerned the building would be shuttered.

“No. We need it too badly. I didn’t know how it was going to stay open. I just had faith it would work out,” he said.

“We’re very happy here,” Downing said as he walked toward the pool and outlined plans for summer movie nights there, complete with hot dogs and open to the public.

“And you know what?” he asked, beaming. “We found out everybody else is happy here, too.”

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