By helping others, a mother honors son lost to violence

Urban Chronicle

December 15, 2005|By ERIC SIEGEL

Martha Benton walks across the living room of her apartment in the Douglass Homes public housing complex, pointing out a wooden end table and magazine rack that her son had made before he was stabbed to death at the age of 24.

The more current, and maybe more lasting, testaments to her son's life are in a stack of papers on a cluttered table.

The stack contains entries for the Kelvin M. Benton Awards, an essay contest on drugs and education Benton set up for kids in public housing after her son's killing a little over 15 years ago. Together, they are modest statements of hardship and hope.

"My mother was a drug addict and my little sister and I had to move with friends of my mother. ... I prayed to God everyday to take those drugs from my mother and bring her back in our lives. ... I really don't see how people could sell drugs to people's mothers and feel o.k. with it."

- From an essay last year by a senior at Dunbar High School who lived in Douglass Homes.

Kelvin Benton's killing late on an August night in 1990 was one of 305 homicides in the city that year, the first in a string of years exceeding 300 killings that would not end until a decade later.

It occurred in Somerset Homes, a public housing complex across Orleans Street from Douglass, and got a brief mention on page 2 of the Maryland section of The Sun the next day, part of a five-paragraph wrap-up of four homicides.

The article said he was stabbed to death by a homeless man after an argument. Martha Benton says the man was a boyfriend of her since-deceased sister, and that he later said he stabbed her son out of fear. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to a year in prison, she says.

"All I see when I go home is boys selling drugs and people buying them on the corners, in the play ground, and in the mall. In the courts. In parking lots, empty houses. When I grow up after I finish school, I am going to college to get a career, have a husband, kid's and a house."

- From one of this year's entries by a fourth-grader at Thomas G. Hayes Elementary School who lives in Somerset.

Benton, who is 64 and a member of the housing authority's resident advisory board, was never able to find out whether drugs were involved in her son's killing. She knows they were a part of his life.

"He was a drug addict," she says. "He was on the honor roll all through school, but drugs were his downfall. He acted crazy when he was under the influence."

She tried to get him help, but to no avail. "At that time, for a poor black family, the help was limited," she says.

A mother of five, Benton was no stranger to tragedy when her son was slain: A decade before, a daughter, Yvette Regina Benton, age 14, was killed by a drunken driver. She used some of the money she got from the accident to set up an award in her daughter's name at the Maryland School for the Deaf, where she had been a student.

After her son was killed, she took money she received as donations and, with the help of the housing authority, set up the awards in his name. This year's cash awards, totaling $500, are to be presented at next month's meeting of the housing authority board.

Benton says setting up the awards was part of her effort not to dwell on the circumstances of her son's death, but to "live off the part that makes you whole."

"In Cherry Hill, we still make it even though we don't have a lot of money. ... When you look at people using drugs they look so sad, some of them have no teeth, no hair and even have kids with them when they get drugs."

- From another of this year's entries by an eighth-grader at Arundel Elementary/Middle School.

Despite increased drug treatment and stepped-up law enforcement, Benton sees what the student essays indicate: Drug dealing is still a problem in and around the city's public housing projects.

Benton makes no grand claims for the effect of the awards program named for her son. In fact, she says, the degree of drug dealing in and around public housing complexes like hers has changed little in more than a decade.

But she says the program shows that adults care and encourages kids to keep away from drugs and stay in school. "It's an incentive to build themselves up," she says.

Two recent winners were her granddaughters, one of them the daughter of her slain son. Of past winners, she says, "Some went to jail, and some got killed on the streets."

But she adds, "I've seen some of them working at hotels, some of them working at Hopkins, working in the school system."

"What I see is killing over drugs. ... One day me and my mother was sitting down in the living room watching T.V. when someone shot through the window. ... I was scared to sit in there for a month. I think someone should take all the drugs and put them on a boat and ship it off to sea."

- From an entry by a fourth-grader at City Springs Elementary and a resident of Perkins Homes.

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