A couple's effort keeps youth safe

The Duprees hand out presents to children who stay at home and off Baltimore's streets

January 22, 2007|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN REPORTER

The streets of Baltimore have been particularly bloody recently, which makes a decades-old question especially relevant again: Do you know where your children are?

If they attend one of five Baltimore middle schools, the odds are better that they're home during the evening hours.

And for that, the thank-you goes to a program run out of an East Baltimore rowhouse by a retired couple using a small budget, a chunk of time and a lot of soul.

The program -- called Do You Know Where Your Children Are? -- was created by James and Lyla Dupree, who grew sick of seeing so much young blood spilled on the city's streets from gunfights and knife fights and no fights at all, just random bullets or blades destroying young bodies that would have been safer at home.

"I've seen so much misery on these city streets, just to see a spark in a young person's eye is a blessing," says James Dupree, who joins his wife and any volunteers who want to help them each week to keep Baltimore children alive.

"Let me ask you," he says, then pauses and peers through thick, uneven glasses. Then he asks something that perhaps should be obvious. "If we can do a little bit of good, why wouldn't we?"

Especially with 28 children under age 18 among those killed on Baltimore's streets last year. That's an increase from 13 the year before. The number of kids charged with murder nearly doubled, going from 11 to 21.

The Dupree program is a little bit bribery, a little bit hope, a little bit luck and a lot of prayer.

Five schools with middle grades take part: Harford Heights, City Springs, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Lombard and Canton. The names of students whose parent or parents agree to participate are placed in a hat, and about once a week, five or so names are pulled.

Then the Duprees, with a preacher in tow, hop into a limousine or other fancy car donated for the evening, and they go to the children's addresses.

Wednesday's first stop was the home of Beraka Bland, 11, a diligent student, obedient son, all-around good kid.

But would he be home?

James Dupree, a former liquor salesman, is 73, though his right hip might as well be 173 and his left knee older than that. On Wednesday, as he does one day each week, occasionally more, Dupree is leaning on his silver-colored cane, his wife at his side, taking one small step at a time to get where he -- and his city -- need to be.

They've been married 52 years, this couple.

"We're even starting to look like each other," he says, laughing.

"Poor thing," he says. "Good thing she was so beautiful to start. The love of my life."

When they get to Beraka's house on East Lafayette Street -- "Easy does it," says his wife, who is 72 -- they knock once.

Twice.

Again.

Finally, the doorknob moves. Someone answers.

"You're a winner!" shouts the Dupree entourage, out in the cold to make sure the young are warm and safe inside.

Beraka's father, Alex, stands behind him. The son becomes a jumping bean with a smile bright enough to compensate for the shot-out street lamps.

"A watch!" Beraka exclaims as Nellie Lassiter, in her 70s and one of the Dupree volunteers, starts handing him gifts, partly for being home, which is mostly how kids avoid getting shot these days in certain parts of Baltimore, certainly in this part, on Broadway East.

On receiving a new book bag, Beraka is just as excited: "Whoa! Love it! I needed that very much."

"And let me tell you something," says James Dupree. "The only reason we're giving you all of this is because you're a good young man, at home where you should be. We want to show our appreciation for you, for being home and for being who you are."

"Amen," chimes his wife.

"Just stay away from them gangs," says James Dupree.

"Amen," adds Lyla Dupree.

"This is what we need, just exactly programs like this one," says Edward Hopkins, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Services. "One-on-one programs in the community cannot be beat for their effectiveness."

At Beraka's house, the rest of the gifts are handed over -- a basketball, a football game, a couple of shirts, pants, a ball cap, an AM-FM 5-inch television, book binders, books, a cake and Bible.

"We give thanks, God, that you are in control," prays the Rev. Naija Brown, a prayer circle now formed on the Blands' porch on this tough street in this deadly neighborhood -- hands joined together, the Duprees and this young man, and his father and Lassiter and the reverend.

The Dupree outreach program began in 1999, this version anyway. They've been helping kids for as long as they can remember, though, including nine of their own.

"Saturate this circle with your goodness!" Brown intones on the porch. "For tonight we have a young man safe and at home, and we need every good young man we can get, Lord."

"Amen, amen, amen," the others say in unison.

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