The Angel of Area 5

When retiree Bev Tittle-Baker's neighbors convinced her to help them make the crime-infested area safer for children, they unleashed an irrepressible force for change

Bev Tittle-Baker is not a born activist. A single mother most of her life, she owned a construction business in Phoenix, but gave it all up in the early '90s after growing weary of cutthroat contracting competition.

She found a "fixer-upper" home in an old Mesa neighborhood, saw its potential and bought it for a bargain price without giving much thought to the blight that surrounded it.

She fixed up the house, painted at her easel and learned to subsist in a cocoon, insulating herself from the sound of gunshots and sirens that echoed through the night. But when her neighbors, desperate to alter the environment that was victimizing so many of their children, begged her to help, Tittle-Baker agreed to see what she could do.

What she has done--almost exclusively through grassroots organizing, networking and obtaining donations and grants--is miraculous. When former Reagan/Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan penned the term "a thousand points of light," she must have envisioned Bev Tittle-Baker.

"If we had about a hundred more citizens like her, we wouldn't have any problems in Mesa," says Tanya Collins, director of Mesa's Neighborhood and Community Assistance Office.

Statistics say a lot about Tittle-Baker's neighborhood. She can pull out data showing the poverty-level incomes, the number of children in single-parent homes, the number of students for whom English is a second language, the high percentage of gang members.

But no statistics reveal as much as a neighborhood stroll with Tittle-Baker.
The sun is creeping toward the horizon as we begin to walk south on Bellview, the street where Tittle-Baker, 51, and her husband of two years, Robert Baker, live in a quaint brick home that could have been torn from the pages of Country Living.

The first people we encounter are young Latino men, gathered around their cars, drinking 40-ouncers and blasting hip-hop. She whispers that "the house looks suspicious" because of the high volume of traffic. The occupants have moved in recently, so she doesn't quite have a handle on their activities. This is unusual; Tittle-Baker knows almost everyone in the area. If she doesn't know the adult residents, you can be sure that she knows the children.

Not far from the "suspicious" house, a couple of boys are playing in their yard. She tells me of their father's history of physically abusing the boys and that he was recently accused of sexually molesting the boys' younger sister. The boys call out a greeting. She responds warmly and asks them why they weren't at the after-school program that day. They explain that the family had to take the younger girl to the hospital for her asthma.

All the kids in the area know who Bev Tittle-Baker is--she's the lady who opens her home to them after school every day from 3:30 to 5. They do arts and crafts, play games and have snacks out of the food-bank shed adjacent to her backyard.

The seeds that sprouted into the after-school program were sown in the summer of 1995 by a group of teenage girls who would walk the younger children to a school and back each day to partake of the free breakfast/lunch program. The children would convene at Tittle-Baker's home to meet their escorts; after a short time, the older girls wanted to have activities for the children.

Tittle-Baker was more than accommodating--ever since then, kids have gathered in the afternoons in her backyard, year-round.

On a recent afternoon at "Club Bev," about 30 kids ages 2 to 17 congregated in her yard. In her kitchen, an intern from Arizona State University's School of Social Work mixed homemade modeling clay in the sink. While the intern squished paint into globs of flour and salt, Tittle-Baker rummaged through the food shed for empty egg cartons, drinking straws and dry kidney beans.

Locating her "educational materials," she demonstrated the game she has planned for the younger kids that day. She numbered the depressions in the egg cartons and poured kidney beans into the open lid. The kids were to suction the kidney beans with the straw and drop them into the depressions until the number of kidney beans in each cavity matched the number marked above it.

The modeling clay was brought from the kitchen to picnic tables and the kids picked through the colors voraciously. "I don't want pink!" one young boy yelled. While the kids kneaded and molded their balls of dough, Tittle-Baker and her volunteers brought out seashells, beads and plastic jewels to add to the kids' sculptures.

As the projects began, an 8-year-old boy rode up on a bike, announcing, "More kids coming," first in English, then Spanish. The children were equally Latino and Caucasian, reflecting the near equal residency of the races in the neighborhood.

Tittle-Baker walked around, encouraging the kids. One brash 6-year-old hoisted his sculpture and declared, "I'm keeping this!" Tittle-Baker sweetly encouraged him, saying, "Why, I would, too. That's a wonderful piece."

For the most part, the kids focused on their projects, polite and respectful to Tittle-Baker and the volunteers.

The sculptures were put on hold while a volunteer distributed fried chicken to the children. Tittle-Baker stood to the side and talked about some of the children present.

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