Ella Thompson lost her daughter Andrea in the most evil, violent way. Raped and shot dead moments from her front door. She was 12 years old. The grief drove Ella into community service in her struggling West Baltimore neighbourhood.
The Drug Economy
The complex social issues at play in a place like West Baltimore can only be fully understood through the lens of the open market drugs trade. The lack of a viable economic engine and a collapsed labour market created an environment for inter-generational drug addiction that has destroyed whole communities.
As Ed Burns, Simon's writing partner puts it, "we're running a holocaust in slow motion here. It's been going on since the 60's and it is just grinding and grinding and we're losing generation after generation."
The drug economy offers answers to life's existential questions. It provides employment and meaning to people on both sides of the trade. In a country where the economic system doesn't need 15% or more of the population, this is the answer.
"The biggest challenge for this community to help get it straightened out is to get positive people in here."
It is against this backdrop that Ella Thompson volunteered at her local Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center. Within a couple of years she was director of the Center. Each weekday she ran after-school programs for the kids in her Franklin Square community.
She began socialising children who were essentially raising themselves and keeping them away from the local drug trade, the business that is always hiring.
The Rec Center became a bubble of security and calm set apart from the Corner chaos. A safe phone number to call anytime night or day. Someone to fight their corner in a world that stacked the odds against their favour.
In the few clips of youtube that are available, we see a dedicated, softly-spoken but determined woman whose number one priority is the welfare of her kids. She believes they can make it out of the grinding poverty. Every child is worthy of the opportunity to make it out.
"I love the challenge because I know that I can win and they can win. These kids need a chance, they deserve a chance and they want that chance."
Yet the systemic failure on a social, economic and moral level is a huge headwind to fight against. Urban renewal comes in the form of gentrification and not the replanting of the old community. Time rolls on.
Before her premature passing in 1998, Ella walked the streets of West Baltimore building relationships, getting to know parents, honouring her daughter through her work and always steadfast in her belief that her kids could grow and improve.
Her heart rested in positivity and progress in the hope of saving and reforming all those who came through the Rec Center. She represented the potential for selflessness in an earthly world that does not reward such goodness. She was the light that will never go out, as Ed Burns said, "a rare forgiving soul not easily forgotten."