Baraka's other boys

Editorial Notebook

March 25, 2006|By ANN LOLORDO

Derick Chana never walked the red carpet. He didn't attend the opening night festivities of The Boys of Baraka. He hasn't even seen the award-winning documentary. He doesn't need to; he lived it.

Derick arrived at the alternative boarding school in Kenya in 1996 as a 12-year-old from Southwest Baltimore eager for an adventure. He was among the first at-risk middle-schoolers recruited for this program intended to prepare them academically and emotionally for Baltimore's top high schools. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady chronicled the final days of the school and its emotional closing in 2003. Their candid portraits of its last students - their challenges, triumphs and tough transitions home - made us wonder about the other boys of Baraka who went before.

Had the opportunity to study and learn in the Kenyan outback served them well? Had the chance to escape Baltimore's streets even for two short years made a difference in their young lives? Did it matter?

During its seven years of operation, the Baraka program served about 95 boys, most of whom arrived at the school three to four grade levels behind. Forty percent to 50 percent of program graduates earned their high school diplomas, an improvement over their non-Baraka peers. Once the program shut down, the Abell Foundation, its chief sponsor, hired John Yates, a retired youth counselor, to mentor Baraka boys. He spends most of his time following 17 teens - "I just want them to get through high school."

Another 15 to 18 moved out of state or cut ties to the program. Eight alumni went to college; two joined the Navy; one spent time in prison. Baraka graduate Evan Hardy was murdered in 2003, months before he planned to attend Morgan State University.

Derick Chana is one of Baraka's successes, which is to say he enrolled in the program with the encouragement of his mother, finished it, returned to Baltimore, completed his high school studies and later joined the Army. Baraka introduced a shy, insecure boy to a world beyond his gritty neighborhood.

It gave him new role models to emulate; it helped him mature and prepared him "for anything in life." But life after Baraka wasn't easy. He changed high schools, ran with his homeboys, smoked too much weed and struggled to find his place: "I woke up one day and I just hated my life."

But he had the courage to do something about it. A friend suggested they join the Army. The friend failed the drug test, but Derick enlisted and spent a year in Iraq. From his base in California now, Derick helps train soldiers for desert combat. Reflecting on his Baraka experience, the 21-year-old says he didn't want it to end. He lobbied officials to admit his brother, Brandon Shields, a student in the last Baraka class now enrolled at a Mississippi boarding school.

"If I never went to Africa, I'd be stuck in Baltimore city," says Derick, which is to say, nowhere. "I've been all over the world."

The difference isn't about the miles traveled. Derick's Baraka classmate, Donte Bellamy, 22, traveled another road. On Feb. 28, he was shot dead in a double murder on East 25th Street.

When Lisa Shields urged her sons Derick and Brandon to apply for the Baraka program, it was because she was afraid for them. Fearful that her love alone couldn't keep them safe on city streets. She wanted more for them, and Baraka was "the steppingstone."

It has been that for Derick and others who had a supportive parent or mentor. Those lucky enough to go to private schools or better public ones managed to rekindle the Baraka ethos with its emphasis on learning, self-improvement and self-esteem. Those students, says former Baraka teacher Daniela Lewy, have a broader view of the world and its possibilities because of the physical and emotional space they inhabited at the school.

That was the gift of Baraka. No student should have to leave his mother or father or grandparent and travel far from home to get that perspective on the world or himself. But that may be what it takes.

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