The Julie Community Center, located in a corner rowhouse at S. Washington and E. Lombard streets has a simple and clear black-lettered sign. The center’s mission, serving Southeast Baltimore residents by fostering individual and neighborhood pride, participation and self-determination, is equally clear, though maybe not so simple.
For the past 28 years, Sister Barbara Ann English—familiarly known as Sister Bobby—has steered the center toward that mission. At the end of June, five months shy of her 80th birthday, she retired as director of the center.
“Although I still have some good energy, I’m getting up there,” said English.
“Good energy” may be an understatement. English doesn’t look a day over a very-fit 70. Although she won’t be directly responsible for the center’s activities, English, who enjoys yoga and swimming, said she will probably stick around to volunteer frequently.
English said that a succession plan had been started about five years ago, and a solid successor, Laura Syron, has been identified. Syron, a registered nurse, took over the center’s operations at the beginning of the month.
“We finally found a good candidate who was willing to do the work,” English said. “When you find a good candidate, you’ve got to jump on it.”
The Julie Community Center was formed in 1975 by English’s religious order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. In 1976, it was designated a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
Though it was founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame and has had two directors of that order, the center’s operations in improving the Southeast are completely secular.
“The basic component is love one another and work together,” said English. “What other more religious thing could you do in life besides that?”
English joined the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1951, and spent time teaching 4th through 8th grade, “up and down the East Coast, from New York to Georgia.”
After that, she moved to Brazil for 19 years and discovered her passion for community work.
“It’s so fun,” English said. “You never have a boring day.”
Health outreach and social outreach have been two of the Julie Community Center’s main priorities from the beginning.
English said that one of many projects may be teaching a diabetic to stick to his medication and diet.
“You put a well-trained health promoter beside people with health problems, and they work toward self-management,” she said.
Those health promoters are often student nurses at Johns Hopkins, completing community service as a requirement toward receiving their RNs.
“You hook them up with a diabetic person who is not doing well, and with some cheerleading, some coaching and some teaching, they eventually get it,” explained English.
But it may take some time, and the “magic number” is three.
“If you can stick with it for the three years, then you will have some success,” said English, adding that it took the center three years to help an immigrant woman get treatment for a cleft palate.
In the early days, it took the center three years and three months to close down local bars that employed underage prostitutes and drug dealers as well, English said.
“There must be some magic to three,” she said.
Soon after her arrival, English, the Julie Center and “a group of crazy people” took part in the HEART—Homeowners Expecting A Reasonable Tax—movement in the late 1980s.
The movement started when, due to development, property values and, subsequently, taxes skyrocketed in Butchers Hill and Upper Fell’s Point. Those negatively affected were the blue collar workers who had earlier bought homes in the no-frills but tidy neighborhood.
“They bought cheaply, but they took care of their homes and took pride in their homes,” said English. “One of the first things I heard when I came here was how people were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to stay here.”
After—there’s that number again—three years of effort, the group succeeded in getting a homeowners tax credit established, English said.
“I remember these things because they were intense, but at the same time they were tons of fun,” she said.
Another accomplishment in which English’s Julie Center participated was the establishment of community schools.
In the late 1990s, after a census pushed the Southeast to improve community conditions, a study group was established specifically for schools. This group identified assets, problems, resources and wishes for the 16 schools then in Southeast Baltimore. From this study came the concept of community schools—schools that not only educated children, but helped whole families work out their problems.
“If a child comes to school and is hungry, or is worried because the electricity has been shut off, or because his mom has gotten an eviction letter, then he can’t very well study,” explained English.
In a community school, English said, both the school’s administration and a community coordinator look for resources in the local community that can helps students’ families.
Examples include breakfast programs, after-school parent patrols, community members volunteering with schools and food pantries.
The Upper Fell’s Point Improvement Association’s relationship with Wolfe Street Academy, as well as the Butchers Hill Association’s sponsorship of Commodore John Rodgers Elementary and Middle School and Patterson Park Public Charter School are examples of community-and-school partnerships that have grown from that late-1990s initiative.
English is the first to give others credit for the various successes over the years.
“We haven’t done anything ourselves,” she said.
English turns 80 on Tuesday, November 19. The community is invited to visit for breakfast, 7-9 a.m., or lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., at the Julie Center. There will also be a happy hour that night at Barbara Moore’s house, 1901 E. Baltimore St., from 5-8 p.m.
by Erik Zygmont