Hope found at Baraka lost to city streets

Despite chances, Kenya school alum ends up another homicide


Daniel Mercer and Donte Bellamy became friends at the Baraka School, where, at ages 11 and 12, they were part of an experimental program that sent troubled youths from Baltimore to a boarding school in Africa and immersed them in army-style discipline 10 years ago.

They returned home and went separate ways. Mercer finished high school, went to work at a collections agency and started a business selling clothes and shoes. Bellamy went through two schools and ended up on corners where drugs and violence flourished.

On Feb. 28, Bellamy and his older cousin, Duraye "Money" Cole, were fatally shot on an East Baltimore street. And Mercer, now 21, could not help but think of what might have been.

"I wanted to bring him in as a partner," Mercer said. "And he was like, `Yeah, let's do it.' But then I didn't hear from him."

Bellamy's death from a bullet was not unlike the city's other hundreds of homicides that occur every year. He was, friends and family say, a promising young man caught up in a bad lifestyle.

But even family members acknowledge that Bellamy had far more chances than many of his peers to do right. He never connected with his friend on the business offer. He spent time at one of the best high schools in Baltimore. And he completed a two-year journey on another continent, an experience that could have set him on the way to a better life.

"A lot of people tried to help him," said Bellamy's maternal grandmother, Vonda Guzman. "But when a child gets of a certain age and starts growing up, they have their own minds. All we can do is hope and pray and try to set examples so that kids can make better choices."

The Baraka School program disbanded in 2002, but the ideals it espoused live on in a documentary detailing the lives of four at-risk boys from Baltimore who went to the school in Kenya. The critically acclaimed Boys of Baraka came close to receiving an Academy Award nomination this year and made its way into movie theaters across the country.

But long before the stars of that final class walked the red carpet at the Charles Theatre, there were Mercer and Bellamy, two of the program's pioneers.

The two met at Baraka and quickly became friends. The world they knew in East Baltimore was thousands of miles away. In Africa, the boys were surrounded by zebras and lizards, unpaved roads and an unfamiliar language.

The school enforced early curfews and wakeup calls before sunrise, and required two hours of study hall each night.

Bellamy's great-aunt and legal guardian in Baltimore, Sylvia Rodriguez, had comparable requirements. Homework was to be completed immediately after school. No street language in the house. Lights were out by 10 p.m.

"I thought it would be a good change for him," Rodriguez said of Baraka. "He liked the adventure of it. Going to Africa - that is something every person dreams."

The experience, Guzman said, was better than could be imagined. Bellamy climbed Mount Kenya. He lost 30 pounds. He gave up pork and red meat. And he was, teachers said, focused on his schoolwork, seemingly ready to enter high school.

"He was a smart young man with lots of potential," said Laura Doherty, who taught writing and reading comprehension at Baraka. "He had strong verbal skills, good reading skills. He was quite good in history and science."

Bellamy returned for the second year at Baraka and graduated in the spring of 1998. Teachers and family members collaborated on what to do next with Bellamy.

Rather than return to Baltimore for high school and possibly undo all the good of Baraka, family members and Baraka representatives thought the Piney Woods School in rural Mississippi would be an ideal place.

Piney Woods, the largest historically black boarding school in the nation, sends 95 percent of its graduates to college, according to its Web site. But some disciplinary methods did not sit well with Bellamy.

"He didn't like it at all," Guzman, said. "It was difficult for him to adjust. He was the biggest child there for his age. And one time they paddled him, and he said, `If they paddle me one more time, I'm going to throw somebody out the window.' For him that was a bit much, and by him being the biggest child in the class, he couldn't deal with it."

Bellamy wanted to come home after ninth grade. The family complied, and he got into Baltimore's St. Frances Academy. The school, founded in 1828, boasts that more than 90 percent of its graduates go on to college or into business, even though most of its students come from families living below the poverty line.

But Bellamy - stuck in the middle of a custody fight between his mother and aunt - lasted only a few months at St. Frances. Bellamy was forced to move in with his mother for the first time since he was 3. His mother referred a reporter's questions to Rodriguez.

With Rodriguez's strict house rules behind him, Bellamy grew closer to his cousin Cole, a career criminal. Bellamy seemed attracted to the thug life, though those closest to him say it did not fit his character.

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