As a longtime Baltimore City police officer, Deborah Ramsey has seen the best and the worst of people. But it’s the “best” that stands out the most.
“I’ve been a police officer, a detective, worked in Internal Affairs and in Uniform Patrol,” says Ramsey, 65. “And you really get to know the community so much. We are called when pretty much all else has failed, so we get a chance to see people as people, when it is just human beings interacting with human beings.”
No matter the violence or disruption going on in a home when she arrived, Ramsey says she could calm the situation by reminding the adults in the room, “Hey, you’re really upsetting the children. Look at what you’re doing to the kids. No matter how out of control they were, protecting the children is a universal plea. That touches everyone.”
Ramsey, who left police work in 1994, never gave up her desire to serve the community and protect the children. For years, she has provided free violence prevention programs to area schools in her spare time. As an OSI-Baltimore Community Fellow, Ramsey will establish the Penn North Violence Prevention Youth Center in West Baltimore to formalize the work she’s been dedicated to for so many decades.
The Center currently operates out of space at Fulton Baptist Church. Students from the Penn North community – made up of several neighborhoods, including those seen erupting on many live newscasts during the Baltimore Uprising last spring – use the center for after school activities, summer camp, enrichments, field trips and meals.
Ramsey will use her fellowship to expand the number of young people served and the kinds of enrichments and opportunities available to them, as well as to have the time to offer personalized follow-up to students in need.
“There are some things that may need additional attention or help,” Ramsey says. “I will now be freed up to go out and meet with the children in their homes to let them see I am there for them. We already have a broad base of relationships with the students and their parents. This will help me let them know that we’re a part of their safety net.”
The number of students served varies, but Ramsey says she already averages about 20 students per day coming to the church site for programming — not including the summer camp, which is much larger. But with her eyes on a permanent site – a vacant building nearby – Ramsey imagines serving twice that number or more.
“Whenever school is out, we want to be open — mornings, evenings, weather closures, professional development days, holidays; we just want to be here,” she says. “There’s such a lack of activity for young people. They need to have something consistent, something designed for them specifically.”
Once in the new space, the center will eventually house a computer lab with wi-fi access, arts and crafts space, a kitchen, community meeting space and a fixed office for Ramsey, who has logged too many miles to count in her car in serving the community.
“As a police officer, I saw how it important it was to make sure that people see the person behind the uniform, not just the uniform,” Ramsey says. “And if you come across as not being fair, people feel not just that they can’t trust you, but that they can’t trust the system. I came to appreciate the enormity of the authority that I was given. The only difference now is that I don’t have the uniform on. I still have the same compassion, the same appreciation for this community and the same understanding that people need help.”
Listen to Ramsey talk about the Penn North Violence Prevention Youth Center on WYPR’s On the Record.