He and Johnson hit it off, and Borinsky hired Johnson to lead the foundation. But Johnson's overtures to local leaders, who were wary of outside developers, met with frustration, and he was looking for a new approach.
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When Johnson met Blake, the 6th Branch leader was organizing a service day through another nonprofit, the Pat Tillman Foundation. The impulsive pair clicked immediately and held the cleanup in Oliver. Standing on the back of a pickup truck at the end of a successful day, they committed themselves and their organizations to turning the neighborhood around.
Resident Donald Morton saw the project unfolding through the back window of the Oliver Street home he has shared with his mother for half a century. He went out to help, and became a convert.
"I never seen that many women come down and do that kind of work," he says of the volunteers. "That kind of pumped me up. They were swinging axes and everything."
Sitting on his stoop on a recent evening, Mr. Morton remembers, as a kid, watching Army tanks roll up the street to quell the riots. He also recalls the dark decades that followed, when the place was crawling with drug dealers.
Things are much quieter today, he says: "Now, the most I have to deal with is my mom."
Since the first cleanup Morton helped with last July, nearly 2,000 volunteers – mostly college students from the Baltimore area and farther afield – have come to help in Oliver. They and veteran leaders have planted more than 100 trees and shrubs, pulled over 65 tons of trash out of lots and alleys, and helped elderly residents empty their homes of more detritus.