Aigburth’s Solar Upgrade

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GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic , a non-profit organization that makes solar power and job training accessible to under-served communities, and volunteers from Constellation energy installed a 90kw cost-saving solar energy system at Aigburth Vale last week.

GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic is able to provide the solar energy system with the support of Constellation.  Savings from the system will help fund ongoing renovations to preserve Aigburth Vale as affordable senior housing.

Built in 1868 by architects Niensee and Neilson as a country home for actor John E. Owens, the historic Aigburth Vale mansion was turned into affordable senior housing in 1999 by St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center and our partners.

The 90 kW solar energy system, which will offset common area energy usage, will result in approximately $15,000 of savings on electrical bills annually. The savings will help St. Ambrose provide the 70 residents with multiple improvements to each unit, including new kitchens, handicap accessible bathrooms and new HVAC units, as well as upgrades to the common areas, including a new roof, common area furniture, floors, gym equipment, computers, a back up generator and elevator upgrades.

The solar energy system will prevent 2,347 tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere, and is the equivalent of planting over 50,000 trees.34165992135_26aba9b219_z.jpg

On April 20th, 20 volunteers from Constellation came to help with the installation of the solar panel system. The day kicked off with an announcement of the project and a celebration with stakeholders and sponsors.

 

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Congressman John Sarbanes praised St. Ambrose for the development and preservation of Aigburth Vale over the last two decades and discussed how the partnership that enabled the solar panel installation at Aigburth Vale should be used as a model in communities across the country to help further the impact of solar energy.

Councilman David Marks commented on the importance of appreciating local history and the environment as well as effective partnerships as three components of a thriving community.

Other speakers included Gerard Joab, executive director of St. Ambrose, Bill Rubin, director of rental services, Nicole Steele, executive director of GRID Alternatives mid-Atlantic and Gary Fromer, senior VP of distributed energy at Constellation Energy.

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Left to right: GRID staff member, Nicole Steele, Congressman Sarbanes, Gerard Joab, Gary Frommer, Councilman Marks, Jane Wilson

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Pictures by GRID Alternatives and St. Ambrose

Amazon’s Alexa comes to Aigburth-Vale

St. Ambrose is participating in a project through the AARP foundation to address isolation among older adults in our senior housing community, Aigburth-Vale mansion, in Towson, MD.  Residents who volunteer to participate in the program are given the Amazon Echo, a voice controlled speaker, to use at home, and the AARP Foundation will track volunteers’ usage patterns.

51xen2uyoyl-_sl1000_According to Amzon’s website, “Amazon Echo is a hands-free speaker you control with your voice. Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more—instantly. All you have to do is ask.”

After a successful initial prototype trial at Aigburth and 3 other senior communities this summer, the project will be expanded in early 2017 to reach seniors all over the country including a larger group of residents at Aigburth-Vale. The goal is to find and advance an innovative solution to reduce the risk of social isolation among older adults.

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Al from AARP speaks to Aigburth residents about the risks of isolation and the Echo project.

Al Browne, who is leading the program at the AARP foundation, made a presentation last week for interested residents to learn more about the project and how to participate. Al explained that participants’ engagement patterns will be tracked in an attempt to show three things: people over the age of 50 will want the echo and will use it, ‘skills’ (apps for the Echo) can be created to improve the health of older adults, and investors will be interested in helping to make the echo more affordable for seniors.

Al told the group that for the 12 million older adults living alone in the United States they “gradually disconnect from friends and family.” According to AARP’s website, social isolation is “the result of multiple causes, including poor physical and mental health, poorly designed communities, and major life events such as loss and retirement.” Research also shows that “the health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” The AARP foundation is looking for an easy to use technology that could have a positive impact on quality of life of seniors living alone.

The echo was an obvious choice for a number of reasons. The voice assistive technology is simple to use and ideal for an older adult whose sight or motor skills may be deteriorating. The echo provides news and information, and can play music and audio books, all of which help to keep users more connected to the world. But Al comments, sometimes it’s less about the information received, and more just that the technology “feels more human.” You can also ask Alexa to tell you a joke or even give you advice. Users have reported feeling empowered by being able to share the technology with their families and friends.

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Edwena, an Aigburth resident and Echo user.

Edwena, an Aigburth resident volunteered at the meeting, “I took it on vacation and everyone loved it! It brought everyone together, from the little one’s on up and afterwards they said, ‘make sure to bring it next time’”

Al has heard this from participants from other communities too. A man from Miami took Alexa on a cruise and commented that he “felt like a rockstar.”

Al is working with experts in gerontology from across the country  in an effort to enhance the product to better address the needs of older adults. In addition to the device’s basic functions, Alexa has the ability to learn “skills” which are like apps that can be installed for the echo. Al’s goal is to identify and develop skills that would promote positive health outcomes for seniors.

Residents at Aigburth had the opportunity to make suggestions for how to make the product most valuable for them. The most common suggestion: “Could Alexa call a family member or an emergency number in the event of a fall?” Though not one of Alexa’s current ‘skills,’ Al has been advocating for this capability. Everyone at Aigburth agreed, emergency assistance would be a major selling point for older adults and their families.

“Can I dictate a story about my childhood to Alexa?” one resident wondered. Al was enthusiastic about the idea that Alexa could help seniors to journal or record oral histories.

And, “What if Alexa could provide reminders about when to take what medications and when to have meals,” a resident’s caretaker questioned.

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Joyce, a resident’s caretaker at Aigburth offer suggestions for how to move the Echo forward.

Input from Aigburth’s users and from senior users throughout the country will help to guide leaders in pushing for improvements to the voice assistive technology that can be catered specifically for the needs of seniors.

Leslie, an Aigburth resident and early participant in the Echo project commented said she uses her echo in this way: “In the morning when I get up, I probably ask for the weather so I know what to wear. I make my shopping list, and if I take a nap, I ask it to wake me up.” Though Leslie commented that she just used Alexa for menial things, it’s easy to see how Alexa is able to offer a little extra help for daily activities.

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Leslie (left) and Nancy (right) are both Echo users

Many residents were excited about the prospect of the program continuing, and the current echo users at Aigburth have been encouraging their friends and neighbors to get on board with the expanded project.  Nancy is probably Alexa’s biggest advocate at Aigburth-Vale. Though Nancy is very active and engaged in her community, she acknowledges that there is a great need among her peers for the kind of social diversion that Alexa offers.

Requirements to participate in the program include having a smart phone and access to WiFi. Both of these things proved to be an obstacle for participants to sign up this summer, but St. Ambrose staff made it a priority to enhance the building’s WiFi and now, each room at the mansion has a strong wireless internet connection. There is a growing list of Aigburth residents who are looking forward to participating in the program. Residents who participate will receive a free Amazon Echo from the AARP foundation that they will get to keep even after the project ends. Volunteers will complete a survey before the program starts, and then they are just asked one simple request: use it!

St. Ambrose begins Historical Preservation of homes in Winters Lane, Catonsville

With support from Baltimore County and the State’s Community Legacy program, St. Ambrose is beginning the preservation and renovation of 10 duplex rental homes in the historic black community of Winters Lane in Catonsville, MD. Though St. Ambrose has a long history of doing quality renovation and rehabs to Baltimore area homes, the historical significance and value of these particular houses has had a great impact on our approach to completing the renovations. In the Winters Lane Community, it’s not just about improving the quality of the home, doing energy efficient upgrades, installing new appliances, and making an investment in the community at large. Preserving these homes for their historical value is critical to the project’s success. The extensive renovations  will maintain the historical character of the 100+ year old homes as a celebration of the heritage and historical significance of Winters Lane .

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Winters Lane is one of 40 historical black communities in Baltimore County. Source: Baltimore County Department of Planning

Winters Lane is a historically African American community founded by freed slaves following The Civil War. Officially added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 2007, the history of Winters Lane is well documented thanks to the research of Louis S. Diggs, author of the 1995 book entitled, “It all Started on Winters Lane.” In his book, Diggs primarily takes a genealogist’s perspective to the history of the black community in Catonsville. Diggs’ book draws on oral histories, historic newspapers, census and civic documents to describe in the fullest detail the life and times of the community as it grew and flourished in the years and decades following The Civil War. As we move ahead by making a necessary investment in the future of the community, it is critical to look backward to honor the amazing accomplishments and resilience of Winters Lane.

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In the August 19th, 1961 edition of the Baltimore Afro American newspaper, journalist Elizabeth Oliver introduces the community in this way:

In the Catonsville Development, just two miles from Baltimore’s Western City limits, sprawls the near perfect example of suburban living, homeownership, and community spirit. There is no undertaker here and but one physician, since citizens are interested in living. The welcome mat is always out to summer visitors who find the community a nice place to visit.

The article goes on to describe the community’s picturesque residential gardens and winding lanes, high rate of registered voters (4,000 in total), its ample opportunities for civic and social engagement, and the resolute commitment of the community’s leaders and business owners. This glowing depiction of a harmonious and thriving community is reinforced throughout the pages of Diggs’ book, most conclusively in the oral histories provided by residents who grew up in the community in the first half of the 20th century. In the face of rampant institutionalized racism during the Jim Crow era, the tight knit community of Winters Lane burgeoned and prospered.

The settlement was founded in 1867, one year after the civil war ended. Some of the original founders came into deeded property upon being released from slavery, while others migrated to the settlement from other parts of Maryland and purchased property along Winters Lane in the late 1800’s. Due to segregation and the distance from Baltimore, Winters Lane became a largely self-sufficient community.

In 1868, J.W. Gould donated a tract of land and old school house on the corner of Winters Lane and Edmondson Avenue. The building became the community’s first church, known today as Grace A.M.E ., as well as the first school for black children, School #23. Grace A.M.E. is still an active community church today, though it moved to its present location in 1890. At least 5 churches were founded within the next few decades and the school expanded and moved to accommodate a growing community.

William Washington and Charles Woodland were two of the prominent business owners and home owners in the community’s early days. The Washington family owned one of the first community grocery stores, also on the corner of Winters Lane and Edmondson, which served as an additional community meeting space. According to the oral history of Eva Adele Page Brooks in Diggs’ book, the top floor of the grocery store also housed the classrooms of the 5th and 6th grades in the 1920’s.

 

Left: The Washington Grocery Store built in the 1800’s has been demolished. Right: The Charles C. Woodland House, built in 1874, was  purchased in 1914. The house is registered with the Maryland Historical Trust. 

Washington and Woodland were two of the founding members of The Catonsville Cooperative Corporation. The Co-op was founded in 1890 as a way for local residents to pool their resources to support new businesses. One venture of the Co-op was the Greenwood Electric Park which was a wildly successful amusement park that attracted African Americans from all over the Baltimore metro region. At the time of the Co-ops disengagement in the 1960’s, there were 523 shareholders.

The Weekly Clarion was a local newspaper that first circulated in 1919 as a newsletter for the Grace A.M.E. church.  It soon became a community wide voice with a small editorial staff and control board.

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Advertisement in the Baltimore Afro-American July 16, 1910
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June 2, 1934 edition of The Weekly Clarion. Source: “It All Started on Winters Lane”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Civic and social organizations thrived throughout the 1900’s including a football club and baseball club, homeowner’s organization, and various men’s and women’s social clubs that organized community service activities and hosted dances and social gatherings.

Left: A present day picture of Landmark Lodge #40. The Masonic Temple was established in 1904 as a lodge for the Freemasons. The chapter is still active today. Right: 1930’s photograph of members of the Emma Williams Temple. The temple was founded in 1925 and is still active today.

The tradition of strong community organization in the early years of the community paved the way for one of the most active organizations still involved in community affairs today. The Concerned Citizens of Catonsville was founded in the 1980’s to encourage an open dialogue about the increasing crime rates in the Winters Lane District. Today, the group advocates for community revitalization projects, coordinates crime watch patrols, and gives voice to current neighborhood concerns. A legacy of strong leadership continues with the Concerned Citizens of Catonsville who have forged robust community partnerships to fight for for redevelopment and new investment in Winters Lane.

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The rehab and preservation of the historic homes on Shipley and Roberts avenues is just a first step to preserving the resilient community for the future. The homes will be updated to meet current building codes, the living spaces will be expanded and modernized and the exteriors restored. The goal is to maintain the historic character and architecture of the homes, meeting the requirements of the Maryland Historic Trust, while making an investment in the quality of the homes and ultimately the community as whole. Renovations will begin this spring, but the preservation and investment in the Winters Lane community is an enduring project that will ultimately include the preservation of additional homes and new development of affordable homes.

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Sources/ For more information

Diggs, Louis S. “It All Started in Winters Lane.”1995. website

Catonsville Patch: “Winters Lane on a Winters Day”

Maryland Historical Trust: Woodland House

The Afro American July 16, 1910

Baltimore Sun “Winters Lane Masonic Temple”

Baltimore Sun “Winters Lane National Night Out”

Baltimore Sun “Revitalizing Winters Lane to be discussed”

Baltimore Sun “County considers Historic Preservation”

Baltimore County Government “Historic Winters Lane Home to be Restored”

Our Newest Homeowner Proves the Power of Resilience

Joseph Butler recently purchased a newly renovated home from St. Ambrose in the Belair-Edison neighborhood. Fifty-seven years old and a first time homebuyer, Butler said that he was looking ahead to retirement and wanted something to call his own, “anyone can own a car, but a home- that’s something special.”Joseph Butler

Mr. Butler is a particularly special first time homeowner for St. Ambrose because he is a former tenant with St. Ambrose Rental Services. He lived in St. Martin’s apartments in West Baltimore for seven years before purchasing his new home in Belair-Edison. As the first client who has both rented from St. Ambrose and purchased a St. Ambrose home, we sat down with Butler to inquire about his journey to homeownership.

This spring, “things just fell into place” for Butler, who had always dreamed of owning his own home. Although he admits that he had his doubts during the home-buying process. Things were moving slowly before the settlement and his patience was tested as he waited for the final approval to go through. Working with Denise Hairston, our in-house realtor at St. Ambrose, Butler finally went to settlement on Friday, June 12th, accompanied at the signing table by his proud father.

Through support from the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) based in Washington, DC, St. Ambrose offers closing cost assistance grants for first time homebuyers. This special funding helps us to bring new homeowners into Baltimore neighborhoods. Butler, however, was a special case.  Because he was our renter at the time, a technicality prevented St. Ambrose from offering him the closing cost grant. But NFHA wouldn’t allow a small complication to prevent Butler from receiving this support. The last thing to fall into place for Butler was a grant check directly from NFHA to support his closing costs. Hairston’s advocacy on Butler’s behalf was critical in ensuring this benefit was accepted by the lender.

Butler’s advice to someone who wants to own a home is to “save money, be patient” and citing the old adage that so often rings true, “Rome was not built in a day.” He also recommends others to be proactive in addressing their credit issues. “Have an open conversation with those who you owe debts.”

Resilience and gratitude are two other factors that undoubtedly contributed to Butler’s success in achieving his lifelong goal.  An army veteran from the DC area, Butler moved to Baltimore in 1998. Butler was honest and candid about his life’s journey. A former drug user, Butler went through rehab at Maryland Center for Veterans Education (MCVET) in 2000 and has been clean for 15 years. While living in St. Martin’s, Butler paid off all of his debts and sought assistance to help to repair his credit in order to prepare to take out a mortgage. “I am so blessed,” Butler emphasizes when he speaks of his journey to homeownership. His warm smile radiates his appreciation for life’s lessons and successes.

Mr. Butler works for the federal government as a security guard for the Smithsonian. He commutes to Landover, Maryland where he works an evening shift at the Smithsonian storage facility. He’s also worked at the American Indian, Air and Space, American History, and Natural History museums. Butler has loved the opportunity to learn from museum curators during his tenure at the Smithsonian. The American History Museum is his favorite, noting a Duke Ellington exhibit, JK Lilly’s historic coin collection, and the first ladies’ inaugural dresses.  Another testament to Butler’s ethic, he actually left his position at the Smithsonian for several years and was successful in earning his job back- not an easy feat for a position in the government.

What is Mr. Butler looking forward to about his new home? For one, all of the appliances are brand new. The luxury of not having to worry about replacing the air conditioning, furnace, and kitchen appliances is peace of mind for a first time home buyer, and having his own brand new washer and dryer means he has the privilege of doing laundry in the comfort of his own home. Another amenity about his new home is that he can practice his saxophones (both alto and tenor) more freely than he could in his apartment. Afforded with both a front and backyard, he’s also looking forward to sitting outside and drinking coffee while he reads the paper.

When asked what attracted Butler to Belair-Edison in particular, he didn’t hesitate for a moment before responding, “It’s nice and quiet. Listen… all you hear is the wind blowing across the trees.” Indeed, nestled on a quiet street next to Herring Run Park, Butler’s new home is far enough from the bustle to feel at complete peace.

“This will always be mine,” Butler says with pride. “I am so blessed.”

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Mom and Daughter Team Pay It Forward

No one is happy to start school again; especially if you are a student being sent to school with little more than the clothes on your back. Lakia Diggs knows how it feels to be a student of parents struggling to make ends meet. She wanted to give back to those that may not be able to afford the long list of school supplies. Lakia and her daughter, Sa’Nyia Sherman, a smart and vibrant middle school student of Highlandtown Elementary/Middle School, decided to do something for those students. Sa’Nyia went online to look at the different lists of supplies required for each grade. Lakia raised funds by placing an event on her Facebook page. Shortly, the donations and supplies flooded her home.

When Lakia called around for places to receive the donation she only had one condition; to make sure that her backpacks got into the hands of students who need them. On Tuesday, August 19th Lakia and Sa’Nyia, stopped by St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center to drop off 30 backpacks. She got to see the results of their labor. An excited five year old chose a pink glittered backpack and began to rummage through it.

“Pencils! Pens! Crayons!” she exclaimed. “A notebook. My mom has a notebook like this.” She said with a smile. “And…I don’t know what this is.” She said as she held up a protractor and gave Sa’Nyia a hug. “Thank you Sa’Nyia.” She said as she sat back down to see the rest of her school supplies.

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