After a 13-year-old boy wandered into the Hilton Recreation Center early Wednesday afternoon, the center’s program director, Aaron Maybin, immediately questioned him about why he wasn’t in school.

The teen had been enrolled at Green Street Academy, located down the street from the rec center, but was recently expelled, he learned.

Maybin, a former NFL player turned community activist and professional artist, said that originally he wasn’t going to let the boy in. But he recognized there had been a shooting earlier in the day that left one Edmondson-Westside High School student dead and fours others wounded, and allowed the teen to stay.

“After what happened, he was saying, basically, that he was afraid just to be out there,” Maybin said. “And these kids, they will tell you f-you before they admit to being afraid about something.”

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Maybin had to teach him about how “death is all in decisions,” he said.

The two had a conversation about how the boy’s choices could cause him to end up in an unfortunate situation like the victims of the shooting.

He posted about the incident on social media that afternoon and said the boy had been reading since he arrived.

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Maybin, who said he was functionally illiterate until he got into the sixth grade, had the teen read “Monster” by Walter Dean Myers and the graphic novel “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds. He said that he chose those two books because they actually speak on subjects and experiences that he knew were familiar to the both of them.

“Many kids think that they don’t love to read, but it’s often because they’re not reading anything that’s in their language or that was tailor-made for them. When I first read this book — I was around his age — and it was written like a screenplay,” said Maybin, referring to “Monster.” “And I could see the handwriting in my mind of this kid that was wrongfully convicted for this crime, but that was still making certain mistakes in his life that allowed him to be criminalized ... it was similar to reading ‘Black Boy’ by Richard Wright for the first time.

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“So you can’t just give a kid from the hood something like ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and expect them to really see themselves in that ... they’ve got to graduate to that,” he continued. “And you know what’s interesting too? You see the card? That’s how far he got in one sitting.”

Program director at Hilton Field House, Aaron Maybin, holds the book “Monster” by Walter Dean Myers at Hilton Field House, in Baltimore, Thursday, January 5, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/Jessica Gallagher)

Maybin could have let the boy go outside and play basketball on the new court donated by Steph Curry, or he could’ve let him use one of the center’s MacBook computers. But instead he wanted him to read through just two of the dozens of books that fill the center.

“Now, we’re able to have more serious dialogue and actually discuss life and literature critically, and then follow up with questions about, how do we address it? Or, how do we change it?” Maybin said.

As someone who grew up in the neighborhood, he said he is personally invested in being present.

“My roots are in this neighborhood. I spent my entire childhood running these exact streets ... so to create a lasting resource where I would’ve actually been a beneficiary is what matters to me,” said Maybin, who has also worked contractually as a Baltimore City teacher.

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In 2017, Maybin and former Ravens receiver Torrey Smith began having discussions about how to give back to the Baltimore community. And in June 2021, the two renovated and reopened a rec center in the Carroll-South Hilton neighborhood that had sat vacant for over a decade. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each business day.

Time and time again, Maybin said he has seen how people have come into his community and do something just to be seen. But through the rec center, he wants to show what “real service” and “real love” look like.

“I’ve seen so many kids that I’ve taught, coached, trained or have invested time into, and I’ve seen their faces on [the Instagram account] Murder Ink. I’ve seen their mothers crying on the news, and it’s heavy,” Maybin said. “So if we’re doing our job, the kids won’t even recognize it because the village around seems normal.”

After partnering with local sports apparel brand Under Armour, the Ravens, Baltimore City Recreation and Parks and the Boys and Girls Club, the center will soon break ground on a new football stadium as well as an indoor basketball court. A date has not been set for the groundbreaking, according to Maybin.

Working at the center means ensuring “no kid ever feels like a charity case,” Maybin said. He — and everyone who works there — wants the children to know that they always have a safe space at Hilton.

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“I may not be a parent to any of these kids. But I’m a part of that village, and that is the role that I feel honored to serve,” he said.

Penelope Blackwell is a Breaking News reporter with The Banner. Previously, she covered local government in Durham, NC, for The News & Observer. She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Morgan State University and her master’s in journalism from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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