Exactly two years ago, Baltimore was in upheaval over the death of Freddie Gray due to spinal cord injuries while in police custody—and there was uncertainty about the state of our city. Streets were closed, looting and violence ensued, and police in riot gear surrounded the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. Feeling helpless, residents of the city watched as the destruction unfolded.
Ericka Alston-Buck, a public relations specialist for the Penn-North Recovery Center, witnessed her neighborhood in flames and thought of the children in the community. She came up with the idea to create a safe haven for children ages 5 to 17 to play and flourish in the Sandtown community.
Since its humble beginnings on June 1, 2015 in an old laundromat, the organization continues to evolve. Last February, after identifying a void of job placement and housing support resources in the community, a Family Support Center was added as the organization moved into a much larger space next door.
The ultimate goal of these programs is to provide means to a better life for the residents of Sandtown one person at a time. The Kids Safe Zone and Family Support Center are able to provide these resources because of generous donations, but the past two years have taught Alston-Buck to be selective.
“When we received traditional funding [from private sectors], there was an agenda attached to it,” she explains. “One day, we looked up and we didn’t have any kids in the building because of the strict criteria we had to meet.”
But now with the right donors and more inclusive programming, roughly 100 children a day walk through the doors of Kids Safe Zone to learn about computer coding, violence prevention, and substance abuse intervention. Plus, the Family Support Center is helping adults find housing, employment, and continuing education.
Take Kevin Lawson Sr. Two years ago, he was a widower raising his son in Gilmor Homes on the verge of eviction. His son approached the staff at Kids Safe Zone.
“People don’t just decide overnight that they aren’t going to pay their rent,” Alston-Buck said. “He had a high school diploma, no criminal record, and doesn’t use drugs. But he hasn’t had a job in 12 years—what is wrong with that?”
She soon discovered that Lawson was never taught how to apply for jobs online, so he was teamed up with Tonette McFadden, an employee at the Safe Zone, to create a resume. Lawson has been employed as a security guard for the past year.
Kevin Lawson, Jr., who recently turned 18, can attest to how “Mrs. Ericka” and the Kids Safe Zone have helped improve his life and the life of his father since he walked through her doors in June 2015.
Everything is still very surreal for Alston-Buck as she approaches the second anniversary of the opening of the Kids Safe Zone. She attributes her success to the support of her husband, friends, and staff that take the journey with her each day.
“I still don’t know what I’m doing. I get home everyday and go, ‘Whew, pulled that one off, tricked them again,” she said jokingly. “All I keep doing is giving to brown children what I needed as a brown child. That’s it.”