The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A former cop created a program to help Baltimore kids. Now, she’s hoping to give them more: a permanent safe haven.

Phyllis Ali sits with her 12-year-old grandson, whom she calls Scooter. (TBC)
Placeholder while article actions load

During a drive earlier this week, Phyllis Ali asked the children in the car with her what they wanted to be when they grew up.

“An astronaut,” said one.

“A schoolteacher,” said another.

A boy replied that he hoped to be the owner of “a nice house.”

“I’m just glad they want to be something,” Ali said, reflecting on that drive. “I’m just glad that none of them said, ‘I don’t know.’ They want to be something.”

The 68-year-old Baltimore native has spent much of her adult life working with the city’s children, and she has seen how people too often write off those who live on blocks with boarded-up buildings. She has also seen what is lost when they do.

“We can’t cast them away because of their environment,” she said. “Don’t take their hope away. They are somebody. Just because they are here doesn’t mean they don’t have talents and hopes and futures. They are somebody.”

In the car with Ali that day were her 12-year-old grandson, whom she calls Scooter, and his younger siblings, ages 6, 7 and 8. They were headed to the Baltimore offices of the advertising agency TBC to join other children in the filming of a commercial.

For hours on Monday, those children would wait for their names to be called, and then step under bright lights, look into a camera and offer an answer to that same question Ali had asked.

“I want to be …”

That commercial, which was produced free of charge, is expected to air in a few weeks. When it does, if you happen to see it online or on TV, you should know this: None of the children in it are actors, and all hold a personal stake in what comes of that day of filming.

The children are participants in a program that is based in a Baltimore neighborhood where many families live below the poverty line. It’s also a place that people across the nation saw burn six years ago after a CVS was looted and torched during the uprising that followed Freddie Gray’s police-custody death.

Debbie Ramsey, a former Baltimore police detective and the founder of the nonprofit Unified Efforts, said that about a week before that fire, she and others — with the blessing of community leaders — had picked the Penn-North neighborhood as the site for a program that would aim to help children thrive.

“When the uprising began, that did not scare us away,” Ramsey told me on a recent evening. “I said, ‘Okay, that’s a confirmation. This is where we have to be.’ ”

I’m a former Baltimore police detective. Cities like mine should embrace a community responder model.

In the six years that have followed, Unified Efforts has worked in the neighborhood with more than 120 young people between the ages of 5 and 24. Initially, the organization planned to stop working with teenagers once they graduated high school, but the staff continued to hear from participants even after they got their diplomas. A college student in New York recently reached out to say that if she had a bike she could get to her classes more easily. The staff helped her get one.

“What we read in that was she needed something and she felt she could come to us,” Ramsey said. “Another student we’re working with, he’s interested in being a firefighter. We’re trying to enroll him in an EMT class so he can be on that pathway.”

It takes only spending a day in some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods to see that the organization is up against a mix of painful and complex challenges. In the year that followed Gray’s death, I spent months profiling a teenager who attended a Baltimore high school that was located next to a public-housing project. The school had lost three students to violence in three months, including one who was stabbed in a classroom.

Coming of age in a city coming apart

The teenager I wrote about had spent three weeks alone in his home without hot water, a working stove or lights, after his mother was hospitalized. His school records showed he had struggled, ending one year with a 1.64 GPA, but I also witnessed him be the only student in his class to complete an assignment. It called for him to write a poem using a simile or metaphor.

“The sun is the smile behind the night,” his began.

That tug-of-war between struggle and potential is something Ramsey knows well. She saw it as a police officer and she sees it now as the executive director of Unified Efforts.

“Can you imagine coming out your door and you see a vacant house every day?” she said. It leaves children wondering, she said, “am I going to be neglected, too, like that building? What’s going to happen to me?”

The program, which costs parents nothing, aims to “reduce summer and vital learning loss” according to its mission statement. What that looks like is offering children a safe haven to learn and exposing them to experiences they might not have otherwise.

Participants not only spent days learning from a violinist; they were handed their own violins to take home. They not only spent a summer with staff who made sure they were fed (and given clean clothes if they showed up in ones that were soiled in a way that would draw insults from their peers); they were given laptops to continue working at home. High school students are sent every year to a college prep writing workshop and given the chance to work with professionals to produce a magazine filled with their stories.

“I have something I call ‘the crayon model’ and that is what really forms our foundation,” Ramsey said. “When our kids are at a table and creating, we put no less than 300 crayons on the table. We do that to show what abundance looks like. What does it looks like when someone isn’t saying ‘I don’t have a blue crayon’ or ‘You’re holding the red for too long?’ ”

What they’ve found happens, she said, is that the students take pride in what they create and often want to also show off the work of others at their table.

Ali, who works with younger students in the program, recalls a field trip in which the children asked for ice cream. Instead of being handed Popsicles, she said, they were given Ben & Jerry’s — and they savored it. “If we don’t help them, who do we help?” she said. “I see the hardness, but I also see that little boy inside that rough person. There’s hope there.”

The program has so far been running out of churches and other community spaces, leaving parents asking Ramsey all the time where it will be held next. Her hope is that the commercial the children participated in will help change that. The organization is trying to raise money to build a permanent home in the neighborhood. They’ve already secured the land.

“They shouldn’t have to hunt us down or try to figure out where we’re going to be,” Ramsey says of the families in the neighborhood. “If Unified Efforts is not able to build this youth center and we end up just blowing in the wind, what other alternative will these young people have?”

Ramsey was on set for the filming Monday, watching as the children looked into the camera and spoke.

“I want to be a concert pianist,” said a 7-year-old girl.

“I want to be a police officer,” said an 8-year-old boy.

“I want to be a heart surgeon,” said a 12-year-old boy.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

From prison, a convicted drug dealer designed a board game. It challenges players to go legit.

She created a haven for disabled adults. Her unexpected death places it at risk of being lost.

Kids will have to wear masks in schools, but it’s adults who should be hiding their faces