Operation Oliver, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love East Baltimore

“Come to 1512 Oliver Street at 9 a.m.  We can’t wait to see you.”  That’s what I heard from a guy named Rich Blake in January, 2012, when I was looking for an opportunity to serve others on Martin Luther King Day.  Surfing the Internet, I had somehow landed on a site that mentioned The 6th Branch’s event and call for volunteers.  Acting before I had time to talk myself out of it, I punched in the number.  I liked Rich’s style; he responded to all of my queries with straight-up, no-nonsense information and enthusiasm.  No asking me my qualifications or why I called or whom I represented.  Just be there or be square.

That was so appealing to me.  I lived in Baltimore for the first 25 years of my life, so Rich’s “welcome, hon” attitude just felt familiar and right.  On MLK Day, I eagerly drove over from DC, where I have lived for more decades than I care to reveal.

Even as a Baltimore native, I had no idea where this “Oliver” was.  It was East Baltimore, a neighborhood my grandparents lived in when they arrived in the U.S. at the turn of the century and were glad to escape for the tonier climes of NW Baltimore. When I was growing up, we never went back to the old neighborhood, unless it was a foray to Lombard Street for giant corned beef sandwiches.  Nevertheless, following my GPS to Oliver, I had come home.

I joined a growing throng, all of us trying to keep warm and few of us quite sure about what we had signed up for. The setting was ”The Wire” come to life—abandoned houses, empty lots, the scars of poverty and neglect.  And yet there was a strange beauty in the landscape, the quiet broken only by the sounds of sirens.  I didn’t feel scared; I felt protected and on the edge of becoming a part of something big and important.

Soon Rich and Earl Johnson stood up on the tailgate of a truck and told us what The 6th Branch and Operation Oliver were all about.  From that moment, I was hooked.  We formed teams and fell out, grabbing shovels and brooms and trash bags.  As I walked those empty streets, I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.  Instead of skipping down the yellow brick road, chanting “lions and tigers and bears,” we were marching through drugs addicts, crime and despair.  But we were doing something tangible.  We were showing our love and devotion to Baltimore and its people by the simplest acts—picking up trash, clearing overgrown lots that provided safe harbor for drug deals, planting gardens.

Since then, I’ve performed acts of physical labor that got my blood going and made me feel young again.  I’ve shoveled mulch, sawed tree limbs, laid brick walkways, planted flowers, weeded flowerbeds, and picked up tons of trash.  I was able to make sure that an injured neighborhood cat passed away painlessly and peacefully.  I’ve stood alongside the residents of Oliver, laughing and joking as we gave away food to anyone who needed it.  Along the way, I’ve grown to love all the founders and members of The 6th Branch who live the meaning of purpose, determination, and community spirit.

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