Citywide Youth Development was ramping up preparations for a busy summer when the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic ground everything to a halt. After more than twenty years working in Baltimore to create jobs and foster entrepreneurial talent in young adults, though, Citywide Youth Development is no stranger to a challenge. When COVID-19 came along, they quickly adapted.

“You’ve got to learn to adapt,” said Citywide Youth Development Creative Director David Lemus. “That’s real for an entrepreneur. If it rains, you bring out the umbrellas.”

In a typical year, Citywide Youth Development recruits around 40 young adults, largely from their surrounding West Baltimore neighborhoods, to sell sorbet at hot spots all over the city, design and produce Made in Bmore clothing, and pursue various other business projects. The budding entrepreneurs get hands-on experience working in a professional environment, organizing teams, interfacing with customers, and taking on leadership responsibilities.

This is no typical year. And yet the hard work, talent and leadership of Baltimore’s youth are now more critical than ever to help our city meet this historic moment of crisis. That’s something the young adults organizing production of personal protective equipment (PPE) through Citywide Youth Development are proving every day.

With over a dozen young adults working from a temporary facility in Port Covington’s Impact Village, a space made accessible through collaboration with Under Armour and Weller Development, Citywide Youth Development can produce anywhere from 500 to 1000 masks a day. Since first taking up PPE production, they have sold over 50,000 masks. Most of these fulfilled bulk orders from Baltimore City businesses and institutions. You can shop their masks online here.

You can find different mask colors on Citywide Youth Development’s Made in Bmore online store.

In April, they won a $6000 grant from Baltimore Development Corporation to fund their PPE production infrastructure. Lemus said this went straight into upgrading sewing machines and investing in a fabric cutter that can slice patterns through 20 layers at once. Some of the new machinery syncs with and can be controlled through an app. With new technology comes new procedures to learn.

“The young adults are managing that department right now,” Lemus said. “They have to figure out all this stuff and read the manual. They’re the ones who are with this technology, right? I mean, I’m not that old, but they’re more into it than we are.”

Even just leaving the house in these uncertain times can be scary for young people — not to mention their parents. Lemus said he misses being able to hug his kids as soon as he comes in the door. But new health concerns call for new ways of doing business — disinfecting before, during and after a long day of work. Lemus explained that everyone working in Citywide Youth Development’s facility has been following strict guidelines, and that this is also important to make sure the masks remain clean.

“One falls on the floor, and it’s time to throw it away,” he said, then listing other rules in place to ensure the safety of the young adults managing production:

“Be aware. Wash your hands constantly. Make sure when you come in, you disinfect the machines. When you leave, disinfect the machines. We have sanitizer right there.”

David Lemus working at Citywide Youth Development’s temporary Port Covington production facility.

They sourced 2200 square feet of fabric from North Carolina’s American Fabrics, treated with disinfectant to help it resist contamination. This aligns with their goal to support American businesses and products as much as possible, Lemus explained, adding that a critical part of entrepreneurship is reinvesting — in your business, and your community — as much as possible. That’s something Citywide Youth Development has been preaching since the 1990s, well before what Lemus called the “entrepreneurship age” of the last five-odd years.

Throughout that history, Citywide Youth Development has aimed to invest in Baltimore’s development through job creation. Even small-scale economic growth can make a huge impact. Their mission is to provide solutions to crime and poverty through manufacturing and entrepreneurship, giving young people in Charm City both a paycheck and a foundation to set their own goals higher and higher as they grow and take advantage of the opportunities Citywide Youth Development provides.

“In the entrepreneurship life, you have to constantly re-invest,” Lemus said. “We saw that the future was entrepreneurship because that’s just how they did it in the past and were able to grow because they had an economy that they created. We stuck to the concept and never gave up. We kept going, even through the hard times.”

Scary and disruptive as it is, Lemus said, COVID-19 is one more challenge in the effort to foster growth in Baltimore’s disinvested neighborhoods. In addition to putting their normal summer business operations on hold, the pandemic also stalled their move into a $2 million, 10,000-square-foot space on North Avenue and Smallwood, which will debut as the Entrepreneurs Making And Growing Enterprise (EMAGE) Center when Citywide Youth Development can wrap up the facility’s finishing touches.

A rendering which offers a preview of the finished EMAGE Center.

Lemus explained that efforts to ignite growth in Baltimore’s economy following the effects of the pandemic must be community-led from the ground-up, following the model Citywide Youth Development seeks to set. Organizations like Made In Baltimore, he added, can help build the collaborations that tender that growth.

“We have to work as a community,” he said. “We’re going to have to get all the organizations to work together if we really want to bring solutions to our city.”

Thanks for reading! Please visit Citywide Youth Development’s online store for masks and Made in Bmore apparel here.

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