When employees of a Hampden design and architecture firm signed up to participate in a school-supply drive for a nearby school, they walked into the William S. Baer School, a Baltimore City Public School for children with disabilities, to drop off the school supplies and walked out an hour later with a new mission in life.
What struck them, says Tracey Beall, a 23-year-old interior designer from Baltimore, was the school’s blacktop playground, an outdoor space that sat unused and unusable. Decades of weathering and warping had rendered it inaccessible to the Baer School’s students, most of whom used wheelchairs or assistive mobility devices.
“We saw a problem that needed a solution,” Beall said. And it just so happened these women had the skills, talents and drive needed to design one.
Full disclosure: I work part time for the Baer School, so it was hard not to notice the team’s efforts. They were impressive enough that I approached the group to find out more and share this story.
Beall, Tia Harris, a 29-year-old director of brand strategy, and Alyssa Brown, a 29-year-old architect and designer, approached the school to ask if they could help. Brown, who studied architecture design at Howard University and is now pursuing a master’s degree in graphic design at MICA, says: “All of us have a strong interest in community engagement.”
The women met with staff, teachers and therapists. Six months after their first visit to the school, the women – who had now been joined by their colleagues: Owings Mills-based architect Marcella Massa, 32, and Baltimore psychologist Jocelyn Christian, 28 – formed a cohort of six and referred to their group as “Dream Design Activate.” They helped the school secure grants to resurface and level the blacktop, reopening it as a usable play space.
Then, deriving inspiration from the Safety City play space in Druid Hill Park, they designed and painted a wheelchair-friendly ‘road’ with traffic signs, crosswalks and games.
They painted and restored an old gazebo to resemble storefronts in a city. Local artist John Eichelberger was enlisted to paint a cityscape mural with recognizable Baltimore landmarks and colorful townhouses flanking the road.
And there’s more: Briana Allen, 30, a Baltimore-based architect, helped draw the plans that transformed this unused lot into an artistic, interactive mini-city.
“Studying architecture taught me how to turn someone’s idea into something tangible, and this skill can be transferred into so many other things besides designing a building,” Allen says. “When I learned how you can transform someone’s experience through a well-planned and functional design, I knew this was how I wanted to impact the world.”
There were roadblocks. The Baer School Safety City project, Allen says, “is such a testament to how far determination will take you. If we had given up on the project the first time we heard ‘no’ from someone we needed help from, we wouldn’t have even gotten past our first community outreach meeting.”
The project took them past that meeting through several more and, ultimately, to the stage at the Columbus Center on Pratt Street, where the women accepted an award for the project at the American Institute of Architecture awards celebration.
Why stop there?
While recognition from their professional peers was validating, Beall says her best moment with Dream Design Activate happened when she “realized that we were much more than several women finding a solution for a problem. We worked well together as a team [and] were capable of so much more than we anticipated.”
The women felt it “was our duty to the Baltimore community to continue using our creative, hard-working abilities to make improvements together.”
Team members saw how successful and impactful the Baer Safety City project was and realized that they
didn’t want this to be a one-time thing. Allen hopes the group can incorporate as a nonprofit in the next year and continue impacting the community with their work.
They already have their next project: The principal at Bard Early College High School shared that before and after school, students walk through an abandoned lot that connects North Dukeland Street and Liberty Heights Avenue. It’s full of overgrown weeds and a deteriorating stairwell with rusted handrails; the school and community need help making this space safer.
“Our hope is to partner with the students, the faculty and the parents to try to revitalize that site in some capacity,” Brown says. “In early March, we met with Baltimore City Recreation and Parks, the principal of Bard Early College High School, a willing contractor and a few members from the local council office to discuss plans for activation.”
The group is “open to any projects that help the community,” she adds.
But so far, its projects have connections with schools and young people. She believes “anything that can help children in some way will always be a priority of ours.”
The group wants to do its part to help people in Baltimore “be more united, where people and communities can engage with one another in daily, healthy activities,” Massa says.
Harris adds that she is optimistic for the group’s future and its ability to transform and impact the local community. “As a Baltimore native, I think Baltimore has so much opportunity to grow,” she says. “I think change is coming.
Those in my age range—millennials— are slowly but surely taking over. And we are all about change, entrepreneurship and helping one another out.”
Beall agrees, adding: “My wish for Baltimore is that more people take ownership when they see room for improvement and think, ‘How could I help?’ instead of, ‘That needs to be fixed.’”