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Baltimore teen wants to write bars, not land behind them

"I got everything to live for."
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Posted at 2:11 PM, Apr 27, 2017
and last updated 2018-12-13 14:40:17-05

This story is part of a three-part series entitled, "Baltimore: Through Their Eyes." It's a look into the perspective of people growing up in west Baltimore.

Standing at a crossroads in life there’s two paths: one path leads to a hospital bed, a jail cell, or a morgue. The other path—the “right” path—gets you out.

That’s the bleak reality for some children in Baltimore. 

WMAR-2 News wanted to get an understanding of what life is like through the eyes of children and parents who walk the streets of west Baltimore every day.

"I remember I was little I couldn't go outside. My granddad did drugs. Eventually, he died. We grew up in poverty, mom and dad they tried. I don't want to die young, I want to get old and die,” rapped 13-year-old Tahj Weems. 

"I got everything to live for."

He’s hoping his words are his way out. They’re lyrics the 8th grader penned detailing his life. 

Tahj is from Sandtown-Winchester—a neighborhood decimated by poverty, drugs and violence. 

"I got everything to live for. I got to make it out of here and do something for my family for real,” Tahj said. 

A desperate promise from Tahj to himself as he and other kids his age look to escape the shadowy grip of the streets. 

"I think these kids need a good role model and stay off these streets because people die every day from these streets for real,” Tahj said.

They stand at a proverbial fork in the road, facing perhaps the most important decision of their lives. 

It’s why Tahj’s sister brought him to the Kids Safe Zone, a community center that serves as a refuge from the temptation of the wrong path. 

"I think these kids need a good role model and stay off these streets because people die every day from these streets for real,” Tahj said. 

Role models, perhaps, like Andrea Brown.
Andrea started her day bright and early, getting her family ready for the day’s activities.

"I go to school too so I'm up too, he goes to work, and we just hustle and bustle,” Andrea said, minutes after doing her daughter’s hair.

But on this day, Andrea, her husband Allan, and her 7-year-old daughter Amera, are ahead of schedule.

The seemingly daily routine stops there. Amera goes to school in west Baltimore.

“These are your options. Either you go this way or you don't and you go the bad way,” Andrea said, making sure her daughter knows right from wrong.

It’s a razor’s edge. One she knows firsthand.

The daughter of a former drug addict, Andrea became a ward of the state, bouncing from home to home until she was old enough to join the Army and get her degree in business.

After getting out of the army, Andrea back to West Baltimore to reconnect with her mom. She and Amera have a great relationship.

The specter of going the “bad way” pushes Andrea to make sure her daughter stays on the right path by bringing her to the Kids Safe Zone in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.

"I think when parents drop their children off at the Kids Safe Zone, they know exactly what they're doing. They know their kids are safe, they can play, they can go outside,” said Andrea.

It’s a sanctuary for Amera and the kids of west Baltimore like Tahj.

"I think it's more like a beacon in the community and that's what it means to me. Now what my daughter thinks… she thinks it’s place for friends,” Andrea said.

The Army vet is reinforcing the idea of leadership to her mentees and her daughter.

"Be a leader. Be the master of your own life. Peer pressure is there, it's everywhere. Even as adults, people go through peer pressure, but at that age I tell her 'have your own mind,’” Andrea said.

It’s a push-back to the group think mentality police believe is behind the rise of children committing dangerous crimes, including a spike in juvenile carjackings that plagued the city last year.

"Be a leader. Be the master of your own life. Peer pressure is there, it's everywhere. Even as adults, people go through peer pressure, but at that age I tell her 'have your own mind,’” Andrea said.

A grim reality Tahj not only sees on the TV screen, but with his own eyes. 

"You can't look on the news and see somebody not getting killed, for real. Like we have to have a clean neighborhood. We can't live in poverty,” he said. 

But according to U.S. Census data, more than a third of children living in Baltimore City live below the poverty line. 

"It's really hard for people to really make it out, make it out the 'hood. Some people die young,” Tahj said. 

Hard words for a teen who lost his innocence long ago. Hard words for a teen determined to create a better life for himself, for his family, and leave the streets in his rear-view mirror. 

"Let me tell you 'bout the struggle. Get money in the hood, where the team is most comfortable. West Baltimore, yeah I came from out the jungle and every time you see me y'all know I'm real humble. Trying to get this money to support the fam. Everybody know that loyalty is the man,” the star student and aspiring firefighter rapped. 

"Sometimes when you're your own leader and you step in your own light, they will follow you and if you set a good example, they'll follow along and they'll do the right thing as well,” said the mom recalling a lesson she told her only daughter.

Andrea says while kids should know right from wrong, the solutions–as well as the problems–start at home.

"If you're not coming home to this, what do you expect? I'm not expecting a mom or dad to be in their life, but somebody uncle, auntie, somebody to say 'hey this is what you need to do' and it starts at home,” she said.

It’s why she’s making her daughter and her mentees, like Tahj, understand the realities of the city, and make their own choices–the right ones.

This is a series of interviews conducted by reporter Skyler Henry exploring the lives of children growing up in west Baltimore. Read Part 2 of the "Baltimore: Through Their Eyes" series.