September 2020

Face to Face: New Community Engagement Center

September 18, 2020    |  

It was a dream that was a long time coming. On April 16, 2016, the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) cut the ribbon on its first Community Engagement Center (CEC). Standing before a crowd of West Baltimore residents, and civic and University leaders, then-President Jay A. Perman, MD, spoke from the heart. “This day,” he said, “is a celebration of deep love and affection that we have for one another and this very special community we share.”

Among those gathered, the late Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, JD ’76, may have had the longest connection to the community, having served as a member of the Poppleton community board more than 35 years earlier. Since that time, the relationship between the University and its neighbors to the west, he said, was “not very good.” Many felt the University turned its back on West Baltimore and feared any expansion across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The New CEC at 16 S. Poppleton Street

The New CEC at 16 S. Poppleton Street

But Cummings went on to talk about how much had changed recently, and how great an impact he hoped the CEC and its programs and resources would have on residents striving to achieve their dreams. “There will be children for whom the trajectory of their destinies have been already changed by what you’re doing here today,” he said.

Since that day, the modest, 3,000-square-foot Community Engagement Center has been jam-packed with programs, services, and people of all ages, hosting after-school activities for kids, mentoring for young scholars, health screenings, career development and legal services, a computer lab, fresh food market, monthly community meals, and exercise programs.

Right from the beginning, community leaders saw the need to expand the center. In his comments at the 2016 ribbon cutting, Southwest Partnership chair Michael Seipp talked of working with UMB to find space to quadruple the size of the CEC.

Four years and more than 40,000 community visits later, the University has achieved much more than that. At 20,000 square feet, the new CEC is seven times the size of the original. With a $4 million grant from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and support from the governor and legislature, the University  was able to purchase the historic building at 16 S. Poppleton — a community fixture since 1917 — and transform it into something wonderful. It’s bright, open, airy, and welcoming. The building has been lovingly restored, with an exercise and dance studio, large multi-purpose room for community meals and events, a play area for kids, a wellness suite, computer lab, and the list goes on.

But perhaps the most important aspect of the new CEC is that it represents the fulfillment of a shared vision with the community it’s intended to serve. “Everybody seems to be really involved in this project. That’s what’s so exciting about it,”  Poppleton resident Cassandra Fair said at the groundbreaking.

Joining UMB President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, to discuss the new CEC on his weekly web program Virtual Face to Face with Dr. Bruce Jarrell were Ashley Valis, MSW, executive director of strategic initiatives and community engagement; Tyrone Roper, MSW, director of the Community Engagement Center; and Ulysses Archie Jr., co-founder of Baltimore Gift Economy, a community nonprofit that — among other things — operates a discount fresh food market at the CEC.

Watch the entire program at the link above.