Once upon a time, in a place called Oliver, a band of urban warriors came together and brought hope to a neighborhood that others had left for dead. Organized by a group of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan called The 6th Branch (T6B), in cooperation with local residents and partner organizations, they dedicated themselves to revitalizing one of the toughest neighborhoods in the country.
Oliver first made national news in 2002, when the Dawson family of Oliver, were murdered by area drug dealers who firebombed their home in retaliation for their efforts to alert police to drug dealing in the neighborhood. Later, the East Baltimore neighborhood gained further notoriety when it was portrayed as the poverty-stricken, crime-ridden open-air drug market on the HBO series “The Wire.”
In 2010, veterans Rich Blake, Dennis Robinson and Gregory Lamberson founded T6B, a nonprofit where vets like themselves could use the organizational and leadership skills they learned in the military to solve domestic problems.
“We wanted to prove we could make aggressive change by using the skills we had developed in the service,” Blake explains. “I don’t need people to thank me for my service. I don’t want a bunch of money or tickets to the baseball game. The best way to honor veterans is to take advantage of their skills.”
After a few false starts, T6B got up to speed in spring 2011 when Blake, a Pat Tillman Scholar, received a call from the Tillman Foundation asking him and Robinson, also a Tillman Scholar, for help with a community service day. The Tillman Foundation helped T6B assemble 200 volunteers to carry out a tough mission: a major cleanup in Oliver. By the end of the day, volunteers had removed 5 tons of garbage, painted a mural, weeded, mulched and landscaped. In addition, T6B had formed a partnership with Earl Johnson, a community activist and part-owner of Come Home Baltimore, a local green-building company in Oliver. The two organizations vowed to continue their work in the neighborhood—and Operation Oliver was born.
Although Blake now lives in Seattle where he works as an Army psychologist, he continues to be involved with T6B. Currently he serves as its board chair, while staff and volunteers in Baltimore carry out and build on the work he and the co-founders began.
Marine Dave Landymore, T6B’s executive director, has picked up where Blake and the other vets left off. A formidable leader, Landymore has the quiet confidence and warm demeanor that motivates others for any challenge.
“We consider everything in the neighborhood within our scope,” says Landymore, who lives in Hampden but plans to move to Oliver soon. “Military vets have already chosen to serve—and when they are discharged that drive doesn’t go away. We can’t remedy every social malady in Oliver, but we roll up our sleeves and do as much as we can.”
Two years after T6B first spearheaded revitalization efforts, the neighborhood is no longer the Oliver of “The Wire.” Yes, there are some boarded-up homes, but many of the brick rowhouses are nicely renovated. Although there are empty lots where homes once stood, they are neatly mowed and garbage-free. Attractive signs advertising new “green” homes for sale are posted, and a large mural on North Bond Street reads “Root for Tomorrow.”
Perhaps most significantly, violent crime has decreased dramatically in Oliver over the past two years. “Since we’ve come to the neighborhood the city has taken more of an interest in what’s happening in Oliver,” says Jeremy Johnson, a veteran who handles public relations for T6B. “They have worked to reduce the amount of drug traffic. In the first year alone, we saw violent crime dropping. Crimes like petty theft increased but violent crime went down. You take what you can get. In the first six months of this year, there has been only one homicide in Oliver.”
Sunday at the Farm Stand
A recent Sunday afternoon finds Landymore and a large group of volunteers near the corner of North Bond and Hoffman streets gearing up for one of the organization’s most impactful programs, the weekly Oliver Farm Stand. Soon, a long line of residents will cue up in front of the stand to collect a weekly supply of fruits and vegetables. Some folks are already in line, while others picnic on blankets or sit on lawn chairs socializing. Children are everywhere.
The stand’s purpose is to provide free fresh produce to members of the community living in a so-called food desert, where healthy foods are harder to access. The food is delivered to Oliver courtesy
of T6B’s partner organization, Gather Baltimore, led by urban farmer and part-time teacher, Arthur Morgan. Gather Baltimore is a volunteer-based program that collects vegetables, fruit and bread that would otherwise be thrown away from local retail stores and farmers markets for distribution to meal programs, faith communities and others in need.
“The fact that people are throwing out beautiful food while others are going hungry is one of the great absurdities of modern life,” says Andreas “Spilly” Spiliadis, who lives in nearby Arcadia where he farms the nearly quarter-acre he owns. Spiliadis, who plans to run for mayor of Baltimore in the next election, says that if he’s elected, he will confront the issue of hunger in Baltimore. “Food and food oppression is one of the least talked about and most important issues today.”
At about 1 p.m., Arthur Morgan’s truck arrives, and volunteers get to work. Some help Morgan, easily recognizable by his long white beard, to unload the large bins full of lettuce, kale, collard greens, red peppers, squash, zucchini, eggplant, cantaloupe and watermelon. Others pack grocery bags full of the fruit and veggies.
“On a slow week about 250 families take advantage of the food stand,” says Landymore. “On a busy week, it’s more like 500.”
While some people tend the farm stand, others mulch, plant and compost in the 20,000-square-foot lot behind it. Eventually, Operation Oliver volunteers plan to fill the entire lot with fresh produce farmed by members of the community. According to Noah Smock, a T6B board member who serves as its director of development, the farm should be ready for planting by late fall—and by March it will be fully functional.
Arthur Allen, 55, a longtime Oliver resident, has been helping out at the farm stand for several weeks. He believes the stand is teaching kids and young adults the importance of good nutrition.
“People have gotten away from vegetables. Older people like my parents—they’re 70 and 80—know about the importance of eating vegetables,” he says. “My father had a garden. Especially in the black culture, youngsters tend to eat junk food. Most of them don’t even realize peanuts and potatoes come from the ground.”
Afghanistan veteran and T6B board member Nick Culbertson and his wife, Kim, are hoping to reverse that trend with a grant-funded project that provides onsite nutrition education for Oliver residents. Every Sunday, while residents pick up their weekly produce, the Culbertsons and their “assistant” (7-year-old Oliver resident Ariana Mondowney) set up shop nearby. At their booth, residents can receive nutritional information and recipes, watch cooking demonstrations by local chefs and get new ideas for preparing some of the more unusual vegetables being distributed.
“We noticed people wouldn’t take the things they didn’t know what to do with,” says Nick. “So we thought it would be useful to show them.”
Kim, a chemistry teacher in the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and Dulaney High School, plans to put together a book of the recipes they’ve been collecting from their work in Oliver. “We want to name the recipes after the people in the neighborhood,” she says.
A Joyful Word
Jacquilene Anderson, 52, has always prided herself on being a good neighbor. She has been volunteering with Operation Oliver since the beginning. Nowadays, she works at the farm stand—calling numbers, like at a deli counter, so the food can be given out on a first-come, first-served basis.
“Most of the time, I associate with the elderly, give them a joyful word, ask if they need something from the store. They give me words of wisdom—and recipes,” says Anderson, who admits she was once a part of the crime that almost destroyed Oliver. “Way back when, I was on drugs. I used and sold, but that’s the past. God turned me around and I’m much better.”
Anderson has noticed improvements in the neighborhood, too. “Now there are police on the corners and people are less fearful,” she says, adding that she likes to share her cautionary tale with younger residents whom she hopes will choose the right life path.
That includes Jessica Carter, 21, who regularly volunteers with Operation Oliver. “I help spread the word about the farm stand to young friends like me who don’t have enough [resources] to buy healthy food,” says Carter.
It’s hard to imagine this tiny, soft-spoken woman dressed in a tank top and psychedelic pants running around the neighborhood with gun-toting drug dealers. But dealing was a former way of life for the single mom of a 3-year-old daughter. She attributes her new outlook to community service—and particularly to Earl Johnson, who runs the neighborhood’s mentoring program.
Johnson, 32, who moved to Oliver with his wife in 2010, says the area is full of twenty-somethings who have lost their way. Formerly a T6B board member, Johnson is still active with the group. Unintimidated by the drug dealers, Johnson has been known to sit outside with his laptop signing up youngsters for volunteer jobs.
“Thanks to Earl, now I can help change things by helping others,” says Carter. “It’s much better than spending my life in Central Booking.”
A Safe Space for Oliver’s Kids
Once known as Murder Alley, Oliver’s Bethel Street Playscape has become a place for neighborhood children to do what comes naturally.
Pioneered by Briony Evans Hynson, 32, when she was a fellow for MICA’s Social Design Master’s Program, the project began with a simple experiment.
Hynson put up a single tire swing and a tetherball set in a vacant lot just to see what would happen. What she learned?
If you build it, they will come.
“A $20 investment transformed this place from destitute to hopeful,” says the 6-foot redhead, now deputy director at Baltimore’s Neighborhood Design Center.
When she first started her work on the subsequent playscape, Hynson says she’s certain local residents wondered, “Who is that crazy lady out here every day?” But gradually, neighborhood kids and their parents started coming by to help.
“On one of our first volunteer days, we were building bike ramps. Within five minutes, kids were out here telling us, ‘Do it this way, not that way,’” she says. “On another day in early spring, I saw about 40 people out here—and it wasn’t even a sunny day. That’s when I realized it was a success.”
In February, the Bethel Street Playscape inherited a large jungle gym shaped like a dinosaur that became available when the city decommissioned one of its playgrounds. With the help of Baltimore’s
Department of Parks and Recreation and volunteers from Operation Oliver, the dinosaur was installed on the property, which is still a work in progress. The playscape also has blackboards and climbing structures made of electrical wire spools salvaged from recycling facilities.
Last year, Dave Landymore was walking through the playground and discovered a note taped to a piece of plywood that was stuck in the ground. It said: Come and join our football team. We be out every day. Come at 3 to 6:30. We are the Baltimore Lightning on Oliver and Bethel. You will see our field goal.
In response, Hynson and the volunteers put in yard-lines on the sidewalks so the kids could play football. And now, volunteers from Stevenson University travel downtown to coach the kids every Friday afternoon.
What Brings Them to Oliver
At 63, Lynn Heneson jokes she’s “far and away the oldest member of T6B. I’m older than s__t,” she tells fellow volunteer Pam Gladden, as the two women share a laugh. That doesn’t stop Heneson, a
retired speechwriter for the Department of Health and Human Services, from traveling almost an hour from her home in D.C. to help Operation Oliver with some of its most strenuous tasks. A native
Baltimorean, Heneson says she “doesn’t have the same feeling for D.C.” that she has for Baltimore—even though she has lived there for 30 years.
“Oliver was the ancestral neighborhood for my family. I have deep roots here,” she says. “There’s just this friendliness in Baltimore that isn’t in D.C. I’ve met great people and I feel like I’m doing something to help.”
Stephanie Region, T6B’s director of engagement, says Operation Oliver helps residents to see there is hope for the neighborhood. “They already have strength. Everyone knows each other and there is longevity in the neighborhood. People here have cared for their own streets and kept up their homes,” says the civilian volunteer who heard about T6B through Black is the New Green, a social media-based, environmentally focused organization she founded in 2010. “If you make things nicer, people want to keep it that way.”
Still, Region admits that when T6B first began work in the neighborhood there was a certain amount of distrust from the residents. She believes the organization has been successful because it hasn’t imposed its agenda on the people of Oliver. “It’s about showing people we care about them, but not telling them what they need. Even though I’m not a resident, I spend time in the community and really get to know them.”
Kelvin Holliday, 48, who works for the Department of Justice, moved to Oliver three years ago. A native Baltimorean, Holliday knew the neighborhood’s reputation. “Years ago, this neighborhood was notorious for its murder rate. I used to duck coming through here when I was a kid.” Yet Holliday felt convinced that Oliver was heading toward a renaissance. Since moving in he’s seen positive changes. “I see people taking ownership and having pride. When the farm stand started, people were so happy and excited. It’s rewarding to give blessings to others.”
Benefits for Vets and Volunteers
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Operation Oliver also makes a significant impact on the men and women who volunteer here.
After being discharged from the U.S. Navy because he admitted he was gay, Jeremy Johnson, figured his connection with the military was over. “A few months after I was kicked out, I dumped my
uniforms,” he says. “It was like an acknowledgment that I’d never wear them again. For 10 years, I was taught to take great care of my uniforms and there I was throwing them away.”
Although Johnson was no longer allowed to serve, he was discharged honorably, and able to return to school at Community College of Baltimore County with funding from the military. When a friend invited him to attend a conference for millennial vets in Los Angeles, he was less than enthusiastic. But since he needed service learning credits for a class, he decided to attend. It was there he met
T6B co-founder Dennis Robinson—who, along with other T6B members, eventually persuaded him to join their efforts.
“Even though my military career was over, that didn’t change the fact that I was a vet,” explains Johnson. “I’m not sure exactly when or how it came up that I was gay, but no one seemed to care. Being part of T6B helped me reconcile my vet identity.” (So much so that Johnson became the nation’s first serviceman to re-enlist after the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.)
“Had I not hooked up with a group of people who gave me a positive outlook on the military, I wouldn’t have been as quick to re-enlist,” says Johnson. “It really helped me to get over my bitterness.”
Pat Young, 30, a lifelong Catonsville resident, found his way to Operation Oliver through the Veterans Art Program, another T6B partner organization. Now T6B’s director of strategic partnerships (and a 2014 Democratic candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates), the Marine who served two tours in Iraq admits that transitioning to civilian life was hard—but community service can help.
“When you’re in the military, you have a sense of purpose and worth. Afterward, there’s a sense that something is missing,” says Young, who also founded a veterans’ advocacy group at Towson University. “I believe my work at Towson and T6B has kept me away from depression.”
Civilian board member John Schratwieser, an arts lobbyist, learned about T6B on a fateful day. He met Jeremy Johnson and Pat Young at a performance of “The Telling Project,” a compilation of stories about vets, and returned home to learn that his cousin who had served in the Air Force for 25 years had taken his own life.
“He definitely had post-traumatic stress symptoms,” says Schratwieser, who took his cousin’s suicide as an impetus to get involved with T6B—a decision he credits for helping him develop a strong connection to Baltimore in the first year after relocating here. “What I think is so spectacular about this program are these vets,” says Schratwieser. “Not being one of them, I am continually trying to match their level of commitment to the community. The concept of the sixth branch of military service speaks volumes about the potential of these individuals—and the city we live in.”