Kevin Cullen

Graduating after grief

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / August 31, 2010

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We were sitting on the back porch of the house on Fuller Street in Dorchester, the porch where Hakeem Yaya and his stepfather, Marquis Barker, used to have long talks.

“My biological father was shot and killed when I was 3 months old, and my mother met my stepfather when I was 5,’’ Hakeem Yaya said.

Kim Sanders got lucky when she met Marquis Barker. He was a good man, a church-going man. He worked as a correction officer at the Suffolk County jail and he coached kids in football.

Some men would have run the other way after realizing Kim was a widow raising three kids of her own and four of her sisters’ kids. It just made Marquis love Kim more.

“My mother raised seven kids in a small apartment, by herself,’’ Hakeem said. “She’s amazing.’’

So was Marquis Barker.

“I was a wild kid when I was young,’’ Hakeem said. “But my stepfather didn’t hit me. He didn’t yell and scream at me. He’d sit me down, on the porch out here, and say, ‘I’m going to explain to you what you did wrong.’ ’’

It was that gentle, strong demeanor that made Marquis Barker’s death that much harder to fathom.

Three years ago, Kim Sanders Barker called the cops to say her husband had come home wild-eyed, foaming at the mouth. He was outside with a pellet gun, talking crazy.

The cops showed up and told him to drop it. But he stole one of their cruisers and led them on a short chase before crashing into a fence. He got out, screaming, and pointed the pellet gun at the cops. They shot and killed him.

If Hakeem Yaya, fatherless to gunfire for the second time in his 15 years, had fallen to the streets like so many of his peers, the narrative would have been so easy, so clichéd.

But two things saved him: his mother, and a program called Summer Search.

“The worst thing a man can do is make his mother cry, and I was not going to make my mother cry,’’ he said. “Nobody in my family has ever gone to college. I can’t pay my mother back materially, but I can pay her back by going to college, by being a man. I wasn’t going to become a statistic. I wanted to honor my mother.’’

If he had the ambition, he didn’t have the tools. But after his stepfather’s death, Liana Donahue, a Hurricane Katrina refugee from New Orleans who went to the Urban Science Academy in West Roxbury with Hakeem, nominated him for a spot in Summer Search. Despite its name, Summer Search is a year-round program that targets poor high school kids and turns them into college-bound role models.

“This could change your life,’’ Liana told him.

Hakeem was skeptical, but he gave it a shot. His mentor, Melissa Witcher, got him to talk about something he had refused to talk about since it happened: his stepfather’s death.

“I felt alone. I felt lost,’’ he said. “Melissa said, ‘If you talk about this, you can deal with this.’ And she was right.’’

He hit the books, and Melissa kept him focused. Each summer, he did something that pushed him further. He climbed a mountain in the Cascades. He spent the summer of 2009 at Penn State, with other college-bound kids from all over the world.

And in July, he spent 10 days in Africa. A 10-year-old girl in Tanzania gave him a necklace she made. He was awed by African culture, and by how much he had taken for granted living in the richest country in the world.

He got into some famous schools — including Penn State and Howard University — but couldn’t afford them.

But he is resilient, this kid who is wise beyond his years.

And against his own personal credo, Hakeem Yaya made his mother cry the other day. It was the day he moved into his dorm at Bridgewater State University.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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