Quantaz Smith, a lifelong resident of Southwest Baltimore, is 22 now and well beyond the age of playing on playgrounds. But that hasn’t stopped his efforts to help bring a brand new and much-needed park to his neighborhood in Gwynns Falls.

The work paid off. Smith was one of at least two dozen people present Wednesday as Maryland Rep. Kweisi Mfume announced nearly $1.3 million in congressional funding for the Gwynns Falls Mighty Park project and the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative.

Located near Westside Shopping Center and the St. Agnes Hospital, six “eyesore” vacant lots will be transformed using $535,000 for the park’s construction, Mfume said. The remaining $750,000 will renovate 75 homes in Baltimore, improving energy efficiency and health outcomes through the Healthy Homes initiative.

“A park in that area where children can play, organizations can meet and residents can walk, is significant. It does away with that blight,” Mfume said. “And from an environmental perspective, parks are better than gravel and sand and dirt that just sits there and finds itself the home of debris.”

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Smith agreed, adding that his focus is helping to grow Gwynns Falls beyond its borders. “We have to let young people know that their community extends beyond the four walls of the houses that we live in. It really does take a village to raise a child, and this park can now be part of that village.”

A sign with renderings of the proposed Gwynn Falls playground. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

As for the Healthy Homes Initiative, which was originally founded in 1986 as Parents Against Lead, Mfume said it was a chance to put money into historically “disinvested” neighborhoods around Baltimore and renovate homes with a focus on decarbonization and electrification.

Aureila Maybin-Balentine said she and her family spent nine days in a hotel when GHHI came into her Ellwood Park home and removed the lead from the basement and walls. She also said the windows and roofing on her home were replaced.

“It’s very important that we have all these help and programs because we cannot do this alone. And I’m so grateful for the things that this program have done for me and still doing,” Balentine said, before breaking into song thanking Mfume and the GHHI’s leads.

Ruth Anne Norton, president and CEO of Green and Healthy Homes, said the “money is a critical linchpin” and is helping move the organization forward.

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The group does home renovations for families that meet income criteria — at 80% of the area median income or below — and often have children with health conditions, like asthma. Families can be referred to the group by the city health department, doctors or other community organizations.

Mfume concluded with his belief that real people are the root of governance.

“Oftentimes we think of government as this big, unreal, undefinable object. This is what makes government real when you’re able to help the people who live under it. ... This is just as important as whether or not we passed some sort of legislation,” Mfume said. “I believe to return the touch of government back to the people who elect those in the government. It’s extremely important.”

Penelope Blackwell is a Breaking News/Accountability 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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