The sound of caring for kids at risk

Choir: A city police officer teaches youngsters to raise their voices in song, despite their grim surroundings.

November 29, 1999|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

And heaven and nature sing. And heaven and nature sing. And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing!

On a long dark night before Christmas, police sirens wailing, a small choir in East Baltimore rehearses seasonal cheer. Practicing carols in a rec center with iron window bars, 15 kids sing, sway and occasionally hug one another like the newly saved at church.

Which, in a way, they are. The Bocek Park Police Athletic League Center serves as an ark for those trying to escape the drugs and despair that flood the neighborhood of Monument Street near Edison Highway.

Some members of the Bocek Youth Choir are just learning to read; others are in high school. Some live with foster parents, or stay with aunts and family friends while their own parents are in prison. Some live with mothers who work a couple of jobs to make ends meet.

At Bocek Park, the kids have also found a caretaker in 42-year-old Officer Wanda Saunders, the woman leading the choir. Saunders is a five-year veteran of the city police force, a Baptist minister and a yellow belt in karate. She's a woman who can tell the altos what notes to sing or do 20 push-ups on her knuckles, just like "her babies" studying karate.

As she rehearses the choir, Saunders moves to the beat of the music, her service revolver on her hip, her head thrown back in song. The kids seem mesmerized, which is a good thing because she needs to lead them through a schedule of performances that's becoming more complicated by the day. Already there's the PAL Talent Show on Friday. Then the Monument Street parade on Saturday. Breakfast with Santa at Mondawmin Mall happens on Dec. 11; the appearance at St. Matthew Church at Monument and Bouldin streets is the 12th.

This choir delivers Christmas music that is gospel, not madrigal, flavored. It's about blood running and feet tapping. It braids performers and listeners into one great glorious strand of celebration that is happening now: This music holds no room for thoughts of Christmas past.

Then He smiled at me. Arum-pa-pum-pum, they sing. Play on it! they clap. Play on it! Oh little drummer boy!

Saunders teaches the choir with cassette tapes she has compiled. They copy her every move: Head tilts, body shrugs, hands held in prayer.

A leader, too

And when 15-year-old Shannon Artis takes over the choir for a few minutes, they copy her, too. Shannon leads the group whenever Saunders needs to attend to something, like the teen-age boy who has just started crying in the other room.

Shannon is a tall, handsome girl with the proprietary ease of someone who has spent a lot of her life in this PAL center. A while ago, Saunders made Shannon a "big sister," which is as good as being on the honor roll. Shannon comes here every day after school, does her homework, watches over her own little sister as well as others, and practices karate. Most days, the teen-ager and her 7-year-old sister are here until just after 10 p.m., the time their mother picks them up after leaving her second job.

The choir has had its little ups and downs, Shannon says, what with people having problems at home or going through different challenges. But they've also performed for the mayor, the governor and for the wedding of actor Yaphet Kotto from "Homicide: Life on the Street." And the Bocek Youth Choir is often invited to block parties to sing for other teen-agers on the streets.

A sense of joy

"These kids love singing gospel music," Saunders says. "It keeps their interest. It gives them an opportunity not to think of their problems. A lot of times these kids come in so filled up, so discouraged in their spirit. This gives them a lot of joy."

Saunders serves as a minister at Dalton Baptist Church on Garrison Boulevard, a church some of these kids attend. Her mission, she says, is to help people, to raise them up, to serve God -- and her fellow citizens of Baltimore.

She started her police work in the Southern District, then moved over to Eastern. Before her PAL assignment, she worked as a detective in the sex-offense unit, helping girls who were rape victims and those who were sexually abused in other ways.

"This job is more than just being an officer," she says. "You've got to have a love of kids. I want to make a difference in a kid's life. They call me on the weekend, but that's no problem. They bring me a lot of joy. I tell people I'm so blessed."

Sometimes the kids at Bocek Park PAL call her Officer Saunders. Sometimes they call her "Mom." She tells them that even though they live in a certain environment, they don't have to be part of it.

"I grew up in a rec center at Rognel Heights," she says. "I say, `The same thing that kept me off the streets is what I'm teaching you.' The rec center kept me from drugs. I was very athletic. And I had somebody to care."

In turn, she has become the first female officer to touch the life of Shannon Artis.

Changed attitude

"When I first met Officer Saunders, she said, `If you have any problems or anything, you can talk to me.' So I talked to her," Shannon says. "Before I met her, I used to have an attitude problem: If it wasn't my way, I didn't want to do it. That has changed a lot."

Now Shannon, a ninth-grader at Patterson Park, is thinking about the Air Force or college or whatever career comes to mind later on. The world looks wide open to Shannon -- and Saunders wants it to stay that way.

As they practice "Joy to the World" on this long dark night before Christmas, the choir rocks from side to side. The kids grin at Saunders as she sweeps them all up into the rhythms of the carol. Tomorrow "Mom" will take them to a turkey dinner. Then she'll coach their karate techniques. Their voices grow louder and fuller, closing in on the spirit.

Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy!

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