"Boy of Baraka" Dies at 22 in Baltimore
04-10-2006, 11:05 AM
"Boy of Baraka" Dies at 22 in Baltimore
sad. i want to look into the baraka project and find out why it failed. it seems like such a good idea. my cousin mentioned the possibility of buying the old school since we have family in kenya. i don't think it's farfetched at all.
read the 2002 report the school gave to the baltimore public school board here: link (PDF)
Hope found at Baraka lost to city streets
Despite chances, Kenya school alum ends up another homicide
By Brent Jones
April 10, 2006
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.
"He looked up to his cousin," said Guzman, who also was Cole's aunt. "But [Cole] had a life of crime. That's the way he wanted to live, in and out of jail. Donte started looking up to him. That's what he saw, and that's what he wanted to try and be. Because he didn't have a criminal mind. But he wanted to try things, just like he wanted to try and go to Africa.
"Even while his cousin was in jail, he was wanting to be like his cousin. So he got into a couple of scrapes down in the projects."
A gentleman around family, Bellamy hung out on the corner when he left the house. Honest jobs at Phillips Seafood and Mayflower Transit did not last long, replaced by a few drug possession and trespassing arrests.
Friends of the Baraka School tried to intervene. Jack Yates, who worked for the Abell Foundation and is now with the Educational Opportunity Program in Baltimore, is responsible for keeping up with the Baraka School kids.
Yates had lost Evan Hardy, a Baraka School alumnus, to a murder in 2003, and he did not want to go through the heartbreak again.
"They told me, 'If you want to find Donte, go up on 25th Street and Harford Road, and that's where he hangs out,'" Yates said. "I can't say that I knew him all that well. But he was a good guy, I remember.
"Lacking structure, a lot of these guys fall apart. They miss the camaraderie, being a part of something."
Bellamy became a father in November 2004 and was to marry his son's mother this June. He remained close to Rodriguez, his mother and the rest of the family, always speaking of how much he loved everyone.
But Cole, 14 years his senior, became his de facto mentor and employer. Cole's arrests, from attempted murder to drug violations, reached the double digits over a decade; he was convicted of drug distribution in 1996.
The two were together about 8 p.m. Feb. 28 on the 1600 block of E. 25th St. when they were killed. Police have made no arrests and say they know of no motive. Bellamy was 22 when he died.
Family members remain focused on what could have been, and they hope Bellamy's death will serve as a lesson to others.
"This is going to be something that is going to help people who are still living and acting like that to make a better choice," Guzman said. "The most positive thing that was said [at the funeral] was the truth, and that is: If you don't want to change, you can look forward to this."
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