Journalists who write about social inequality focus broadly on east or west Baltimore. But before it became hip, the community of Hampden was home to families from Appalachia and elsewhere searching for a better life that many never found. Justin Greeley grew up in pre-gentrified Hampden. Volunteers Stephen Farias and Kevin Mercer are Thread Family Members and they all have much to celebrate this month. Kevin just completed and passed his GED exam –a key step toward a more stable life.
Justin is 22. He dropped out of ACCE high school in the 10th grade after joining Thread. “I didn’t like school at all,” he said, and efforts by mentors to nudge him back were unrewarding. Traumas in his biological family took a toll, making it hard to get out of bed for a while, much less attend class or work.
Now he has a job and he and Linsay Burch, his 18-year old companion, are learning to budget, saving money to find their own place while they live with her mother in her grandparents’ house. Lin also left high school and says she has worked in restaurants since she was 14. Justin and Lin are a two-for-one proposition, always together, sharing everything. So Lin also passed her GED exam this year, along with Justin.
Stephen, 31, from Philadelphia’s suburbs, became a Thread volunteer in 2012 while a Ph.D. candidate at JHU. He came to see Justin’s shy personality as a challenge. “I think Justin saw me not pushing an agenda – just focusing on practical things like jobs, life skills. We went to dinner, bowling, hung out. It took a while to get to tangible gains but he’s in a more solid position now. I see it as a deep and lasting relationship.” After more than five years in Thread, “my gain is my relationship with Justin as a close friend,” said Stephen. “If I were in trouble, Justin would do his best to help me. I consider him someone I can rely on.”
No longer a student, Stephen’s time isn’t as flexible. “I’m consumed by my new startup project, working with applications for 3-D printing, so I asked for other volunteers.” Enter Kevin Mercer, 53, a Baltimore construction supply broker and new member of this Thread Family. He and his wife have three grown children and an empty nest. They attended a Thread dinner in 2016 and now Kevin volunteers several hours each week as part of Justin’s Thread Family.
“They help Lin and me with everything,” Justin says of Kevin and Stephen: “taxes, job searching, GED prep. And they each know everything we do.” Lin has clear plans to be a chef; Justin’s not sure yet — maybe start a computer business.
“It was a little scary at first,” said Kevin. “You want to be accepted. I’ve only known Justin and Lin since last September. With their GEDs they’ll be able to move beyond minimum wage work. He’s very responsible, adept at computers. She seems to have raw talent. I’m realistically optimistic about them both, and as a longtime Baltimore resident I’m not going anywhere. I’m with them for the long haul.”
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