Either you leave now or you leave in a body bag." That was the ominous warning a gang member gave high school senior Lavar Taylor as he headed to his sister's home in South Central Los Angeles. "They didn't think I belonged on the block, and I knew they were serious," says Taylor.
Fearful the gang would make good on the threat, Lavar, then 18, and his twin brother, Lamar, orphans since their mother's death in 1999, packed up their few belongings. Never good students, the brothers had a history of ditching class and getting into trouble. Some of Lavar's teachers even made bets on when he would drop out for good. Few people envisioned a happy ending for the Taylors, save for Charmaney Bayton, 50, who has made it her life's mission to take in at-risk kids like Lavar and Lamar. They ended up on her doorstep and lived with her for eight months. "She gave us a mother's love when we needed someone to get behind us," says Lamar, who along with his brother raised his grades and got into college.Since 1997 Bayton has helped nearly 70 kids evade gangs, drugs and crime, all too common dangers on the streets of South Central. With the blessing of local parents, schools and the sheriff's department--she has no connection to foster care or other social service agencies--her modest one-bedroom apartment has become a refuge for troubled or needy youngsters who learn about Bayton through word of mouth. "Most of Charmaney's kids grow up thinking they won't see their 18th birthday," says Lonnie Lardner, founder of the local charity Hope's Nest. "By sheer force of will she convinces them their lives are filled with possibilities. She shows them something they haven't seen since they were born: hope."
Housing as many as 10 children on any given night--kids will sleep on air mattresses for days, weeks, even years to escape a difficult home situation-- Bayton cooks, tutors, counsels them on ethics and college preparation, buys their clothing, meets with their teachers and takes them to museums and the movies. "I study all the time, but that's what it takes to do your best," says Domineisha Lescaille, 13, who has a 4.0 GPA and has been with Bayton off and on for several years. "That's what Charmaney says, and it's true."
Bayton, a divorced mother of Edker, 33, a tunnel miner, and Chyna, 31, a singer, has strict rules for her brood, who range in age from 7 to 19: no drugs, profanity, graffiti, loud music or gangs. And no straying beyond her fenced-in yard unless it's to go to school--or church. "This is a high-crime area," says Bayton of South Central, which had 120 gang-related homicides in '04, compared with nearby Marina del Rey, which had just two. "I don't want them in the streets. Every child that lives with me, they're going to church. It teaches them right from wrong."
Though Bayton, an ex-loading-dock worker on disability, receives some donations from charities like Hope's Nest, she pays for most expenses herself and by "begging, borrowing and bartering," she says. Every day she asks churches, businesses and neighbors for help. And with plans to open a school for her kids this spring, the need for funds has intensified. With the aid of the L.A. County sheriff, Bayton is turning an old police station into a school. "We have been inspired by what she's trying to do," says Commander Willy Miller. "She wanted a safe place for kids to learn, and that's about to happen."
It's surprising, perhaps, but Bayton was once on the other side of the philosophical fence. Growing up in L.A., she saw her mom, Thelma Poe, help hundreds of needy kids. "My mother was always taking in strays from the street," says Bayton. "She'd feed and clothe them. But I hated it. I used to tell her, 'You can't save the world.'" Then after a 1995 job injury left her unable to work and her mother's death in 1996, Bayton fell into a deep depression. The only thing that lifted her spirits was helping kids in her neighborhood. "At that point, I knew my destiny," she says. "I found my true purpose in life--I became like my mother."
And Bayton found she could indeed save the world--one kid at a time.
I could ask my mom stuff, but she's always busy. She knows I love Charmaney. She's like my second mom"
"She has an impact even on the most hardened young souls," says Lardner of Bayton, at home surrounded by her kids.
Photographs by CORAL VON ZUMWALT
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