Pupils win by staying home

Contest: By encouraging children to stay off the streets at night, an East Baltimore couple hope they can avoid violence.

October 21, 1999|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

The way James and Lyla Dupree see it, there's no good reason for Harlem Park Middle School children to be out after 7 p.m.

At that hour, they should be at home. Safe. Doing their homework.

So, for the last three weeks, the Duprees have driven around Baltimore, knocked on the doors of strangers and asked, "Do you know where your children are?"

The Duprees, who raised nine children in a four-bedroom rowhouse in East Baltimore, are doing what they can to keep kids off the streets at night. The Abell Foundation provided a $17,000 grant to get the program off the ground, but James Dupree, 65, is the force behind it.

He said he was the person who persuaded local television stations 20 years ago to promo the 11 p.m. news with the question: "Do you know where your children are?"

But nowadays, Dupree sees kids out way past 7 p.m. Three months ago, 13-year-old Shenea Counts was killed by gunfire after midnight in front of her South Bentalou Street home after walking to get a cup of ice at a store. Last month, a 12-year-old boy, Emmanuel "Nick" Gerondis, was shot in the head around 1 a.m. as he spent time with friends on Ash Street.

Dupree doesn't want to see more children hurt. He wants them at home, and he thinks his program will entice them to stay there.

Here's how it works: Children and parents fill out cards with their name, address and telephone numbers on them. One night a week, Dupree and his wife randomly select five homes to drop in on.

They will make surprise visits until school lets out in June. At that time, one child from among the "winners" -- those who were at home -- will win an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World.

Dupree never announces which night he's going out on, fearing that kids will stay home that night but roam the streets other times.

When he pulls up, he raises a lot of eyebrows. He and his wife ride in a black limousine and are loaded down with goodies when they step out.

One woman asked recently whether Dupree was affiliated with Publisher's Clearinghouse.

On Tuesday, the Duprees paid a surprise visit to five West Baltimore children and their parents. Four of the children were home, and the fifth, Antonio Smallwood, arrived home before they left.

When the children are home or are located within 10 minutes, the parent gets a plant. The kids get tons of stuff.

Brandon Sims' eyes kept widening Tuesday night as Dupree handed him a pen, a box of crayons, an Orioles baseball cap, a coupon for a pepperoni pizza, Chick-Fil-A coupons, a gift certificate for a haircut, movie passes, coupons for 2-liter sodas, a month's pass to the YMCA, passes to the Great Blacks in Wax museum and other items.

Brandon was home, but his mother, Linda Smith, hadn't returned from work when the Duprees paid a visit. So his cousin, Tyrekia McAllister, got the plant instead.

"I'm normally home this time of night," Brandon said, as his friends crowded him, asking for some of his passes. "And I've already done my homework. I had some language arts, science and math."

About an hour later, around 8: 20 p.m., Tammy Rivera, 13, a Harlem Park seventh-grader, smiled as Dupree showered her with freebies while her mother, Romona Williams, exclaimed, "Oh, my God."

"This is a good thing for someone to be concerned about the whereabouts of teen-agers," Williams said, standing in the doorway of her Lafayette Avenue rowhouse. "I think it's wonderful."

Principal Vivian P. Castain said she knew immediately that the program would be a success.

"I told the Abell representative that I couldn't think of a better program that's an incentive for students and for parents to be aware of safety and aware of the responsibilities to help their children excel and exceed," Castain said.

Dupree, a retired liquor salesman, said he just wants to see more children do well in school.

He's even working on arranging a Christmas shopping spree for children who raise their grade point averages to at least 85 percent by Dec. 20.

"Every day, new detention centers and prisons are being built to house the youth of America," Dupree said. "This program, if properly instituted, can serve as a deterrent and break the cycle that we find ourselves faced with."

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