Gee Gee Burnside’s day often starts at 4 or 5 a.m. She spends the morning working as a certified nursing assistant, taking care of a roster of patients that includes her own mother. Once that’s done, she turns her attention to her new job as Assistant Program Manager of the 29th Street Community Center. That’s a lot of responsibility for a 20-year-old, but as Gee Gee sees it, she is exactly where she needs to be, doing exactly what she wants to do. “It’s stressful at times, but I always keep going,” she says.
Service is her calling. Not too many years ago, Gee Gee – her first name is Gechell, but everyone calls her by her nickname – was a middle-schooler attending The Club at Collington Square, an after-school enrichment and summer program in East Baltimore. (Strong City took over operations of The Club in 2017.) At The Club, Gee Gee’s leadership qualities soon started to show. Even as she received help with homework from Club staff, Gee Gee in turn began helping the elementary-school kids with their assignments.
Gee Gee credits former Club Director Julia Di Bussolo with giving her the support she wasn’t getting elsewhere, and encouraging her desire to help others. “She’s my favorite person in the world,” Gee Gee says of Ms. Di Bussolo. “She created a home for us there. We were walking around with no shoes on … We learned to write a resume and use computers there. I learned to be a leader.”
The Club became a fixture in Gee Gee’s life. The program serves students through middle school, but after Gee Gee graduated from nearby Collington Square Elementary/Middle, she wasn’t ready to leave. As a high-schooler, Gee Gee spent several summers at The Club participating in the city-funded YouthWorks summer jobs program for teens – and before long she was doing orientations for the other Youth Workers. She also volunteered at The Club to get her required service-learning hours, then continued volunteering once the requirement was completed.
As a volunteer, Gee Gee came to understand and appreciate The Club from a new perspective. She saw her younger self in the children she was able to mentor and support, as she had been mentored and supported. “It gave me motivation,” Gee Gee says of her volunteer experience. “I found it gave me a sense of not forgetting where I came from – seeing that I can make a different in the children there.”
In her senior year at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, Gee Gee was hired as a teaching assistant by Vanessa Williams, who had become director of The Club, a role she still holds today. Eventually Gee Gee moved up from teaching assistant to teacher, and from there to lead teacher. As a teacher, Gee Gee, who had done many art projects as a Youth Worker, was able to share her love of creativity and art with the young “scholars” of The Club, as Ms. Vanessa always calls them. Gee Gee, who has a knack with computers, even helped Ms. Vanessa work on The Club’s budget. So what if that wasn’t in her job description? It was work that needed to get done, and she was able to help.
Student, Youth Worker, volunteer, teaching assistant, and full-fledged teacher – Gee Gee’s time at The Club included many roles and experiences over nearly half her young life. But one day Ms. Vanessa told her that she couldn’t stay at The Club forever: “It was my sixth year working there, and she said, ‘You have to spread your wings a little bit.”
Leaving The Club was “probably the hardest thing I ever had to do in life,” Gee Gee says. “The love they gave me there, I’ve never experienced anything like it.” But Gee Gee is excited about the new opportunities for leadership she has at the 29th Street Community Center, which provides free and low-cost programming, most of it community-led, to hundreds of adults and children weekly in Harwood and surrounding neighborhoods. “I hated to leave The Club, but my work was needed somewhere else,” she says.
Gee Gee is overseeing a transformation of the Community Center’s after-school into a more structured program that offers a range of activities and emphasizes youth voice. The Community Center was recently awarded a grant from the new Baltimore City Children and Youth Fund that will help make that happen. She will be training three young people (ages 18-24) that the Community Center is hiring with the grant money, and who will be participating in a year-long employment training and leadership program. These changes will allow for expanded programming that will enable the Center to better meet the needs of the dozens of children and youth who come there after school looking for a safe and positive place to be.
“I want to give kids an opportunity to be heard, seen, and taught, and I know that structuring this place will only help,” Gee Gee says. “We need to figure out what these kids want. We want to bring kids in and keep them in.”
And if her long work days helping patients as a nursing assistant and kids as an after-school manager sometimes leave her a bit exhausted, Gee Gee is able to see the bright side of that as well, pointing out: “Doing both things that you love – it doesn’t get any better than that.”
In the long run, Gee Gee would like to get a degree in early childhood education and eventually open her own after-school program. In her mind, it would be a place where people of all grades and ages – young kids, college students, elderly and disabled people – come together in a spirit of learning and mutual support.
But for now, there is plenty for her to do at the Community Center. There are kids there who Gee Gee says need her help and can benefit from what she’s learned – both the tough experiences and the positive ones.
“When you’re responsible for people’s kids, you treat them as if they’re your own,” she says. “What I learned is that you don’t give up.”