East Baltimore man determined to give teen-agers a place to go

He's asking churches to let teens socialize there Saturday nights

October 09, 2001|By Laurie Willis | By Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

In East Baltimore, James Dupree sees symptoms of the city's ills: drug dealers on corners, addicts stumbling through streets, and at-risk teen-agers needing relief from urban doldrums.

Dupree, 67, knows he can do little about the city's drug problem, but he thinks he can help provide teens with entertaining sanctuaries on Saturday nights: churches.

Dupree has asked leaders at several major East Baltimore churches to admit young people ages 13 to 17 on Saturday nights beginning this month. The Rev. Peter Lyons has agreed to open St. Wenceslaus in the 2100 block of Ashland Ave. on Oct. 20.

Dupree also is trying to secure a building in the 800 block of Highland Ave. that used to house a Police Athletic League program. "I want them to have a church in their own community, so they won't have to travel great distances to attend," he said.

The Rev. Johnny N. Golden Sr., president of Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore, embraced Dupree's initiative.

"I applaud any effort ... to make a positive impact and difference in our community, particularly as it impacts and deals with children and youth," Golden said. "He would have the full support of this minister, church; and churches throughout the city undoubtedly will support him and his effort."

Dupree says he wishes he could help all of Baltimore's youths. But for the time being, he's concentrating on those in East Baltimore, where he has lived for 63 years.

"I want to give the children a place to go ... rather than the streets," he said. "They're coming to have fun, and while they're dancing, I will call their parents to see if they know their whereabouts. If so, the parents will receive a gift."

Dupree - a retired liquor salesman who with his wife, Lyla, raised nine children - knows the importance of providing wholesome activities for kids. He also believes that growing up in disadvantaged circumstances need not limit children's accomplishments.

Dupree works so hard for others' kids in part because strangers were kind to his children.

"I have to give back," he said. "Without God's help and the wonderful people that I've met along the way, my wife and I ... wouldn't have been able to make it."

Dupree runs a program in West Baltimore that rewards children for being at home on school nights, but he said his new venture is strictly recreational.

"This is just a fun program to keep the kids safe," he said.

The idea occurred to him after he realized that East Baltimore lacks a movie theater, skating rink or bowling alley - places teens typically go on Saturday nights.

"If you study hard all week and Saturday comes around, you want a place to go and have fun," Dupree said. "If a young man wants to take his girl out, there's no place to go. There's only so much TV they can watch."

Dupree has received a grant from the Abell Foundation to help defray the program's costs. He also has requested city funds to help with refreshments and games. Jamaal Moses, executive director of the mayor's Office for Children, Youth and Families, met with Dupree several weeks ago but said funding decisions have not been made.

Moses said the city supports Kidz Night In, a program in which churches open their doors on Friday nights to offer "a fun opportunity for kids who would normally be hanging out on corners."

Churches apply to participate in Kidz Night In, Moses said. "We fund individual churches doing this, but what [Dupree is] asking us to do is help fund his program," Moses said.

Dupree isn't looking solely for city dollars. He also has approached Robert N. Santoni Sr., president of Santoni's Market in Highlandtown.

"He asked me to help him out, and I said I would," Santoni said.

Santoni has talked to associates at H&S Bakery Inc., Schmidt Baking Co., Maier's Bakery, Esskay, AWI and Utz Quality Foods Inc., for starters. He's confident they will contribute food for the teens.

Meanwhile, Dupree is trying to get the word out to teens about Saturday nights in Baltimore. He said he's not worried about people who think it might be inappropriate to dance in church.

"They've got a lot of religious music that kids can dance off of," he said. "They don't have to have that gangsta rap or the suggestive stuff. It will be tasteful music."

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