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Can Play, Friendship Defeat the Dealers?

MAHMOUD BAPTISTE is helping kids in the Arthur Capper housing project recapture childhood. He is banking on the notion that old-fashioned play and friendship - long missing in the ghetto - can compete for a child's heart better than the glitter of drug dealing and the high of chemicals.

These are children whose make-believe games involve packing their pockets full of fake wads of cash - the stuff they've seen their siblings kill each other over. They are children who live in fear - of catching a stray bullet outside their apartments and of rats inside, says Mr. Baptiste, who describes one family that goes to the bathroom in groups because of the fear of rodents there.

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Taking up a visible position in the housing project's community building, which is surrounded by milling drug dealers, Baptiste heads TEAM (Talented, Educated, and Making It). It is a five-year, federally funded drug-prevention project to develop a peer group of 40 elementary school students at high risk of becoming drug abusers and, by extension, their families.

Baptiste grew up in a tough section of Brooklyn, N.Y., and has a long professional career in corrections. What he sees here in this plot of urban decay disturbs him.

Lark, for example, a spindly-legged 10-year-old with what Mr. Baptiste calls ``an absolute need to roller skate and all of tomorrow going for her,'' saw her older brother gunned down. An 11-year-old has a scar where a bullet grazed his head last year and his mother was beaten and stabbed for reporting who did the shooting.

``The kids are banged up. If they're not, then they're crazy,'' he says, bemoaning the lack of mental health care available.

Baptiste cuts a firm, fatherly figure where there are few. He has brought rollerskating, stickball, double-dutch jump rope, and afterschool homework sessions to the Arthur Capper project, where recreation facilities were long ago destroyed or taken over by drug dealers.

Values, he says, are a key element he hopes to bring to the children and to their parents who are being recruited to work on a T-shirt silk-screening business to raise funds for the program.

Describing in blunt terms the raw value system he sees in the projects today, Baptiste says, ``Being successful today is if your kid doesn't go to jail and your daughter isn't knocked up. We've gotta go beyond that and give kids a purpose.''

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Money is the top priority for these children, he observes. The conventional wisdom that ghetto kids need jobs is wrong because it teaches them that they need money, he says. ``If money is what's important, then that's the best argument for drug dealing.... It's a shortcut to money.''

``Kids need to be kids; this is no new treatment modality,'' he says, trying to explain that his program aims only to bring back what has withered in the projects - basic youth programs.

Baptiste argues that the children ``value money more than friends.'' He says that is evident in the fact that most murders committed in this project are done by people killing people they know.

By creating an oasis in the violence, he hopes to teach the kind of compassion the environment barely permits.

``I thought you were my friend. You wouldn't lie to me if you were my friend,'' he reasons with a troubled child, hoping to convey the value of friendship.

The importance of teaching the children to play is important, observes Baptiste, because absent that, they mimic the entertainment their older siblings engage in - drugs, violence, and sex play.

TEAM boils down to something very basic, he concludes. ``We have fun together in a town that's not fun.''

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