The offer was tempting. It sounded so easy, his chance to have plenty of cash, a new sports car and maybe one of those leather trench coats lined with fur.
Darius Stanton was a senior in high school whenone of his buddies leaned over and whispered, "Man, I'm ready to make some serious money. You wanna join me?"
For a minute, Stanton forgot his parents' stern warnings, forgot his fear of jail. Then, somehow, he found the courage to resist.
"I told him, 'Nah, that's all right man,'" he recalled. "It's just notthe same making money like that."
Two years later, his choice haspaid off. Stanton is widely known and respected as the youth coordinator for the Anne Arundel Office of Drug and Alcohol Programs. His buddy, who briefly became "the man" selling drugs in Annapolis, is behind bars.
He's only 20. Dressed for work in a power suit, Stanton looks older, more confident and mature than most people his age. He speaks quietly and authoritatively about drug and alcohol abuse.
But his voice cracks with emotion when he talks about his peers, the young black men who are lured by the glitter of the drug lifestyle -- and those who are unfairly lumped with the rest.
He hates the way people look at black men hanging out at street corners and automatically assume they're all drug dealers. He fears the stereotypes keepgetting worse as the media shows one picture after the next of victims in the relentless drug wars.
"It's a terrible discredit that the media paints such a negative image of the black community," he said. "I was driving into D.C. one day, and I noticed a group on a corner. I, myself, as a black man, immediately thought they must be drug dealers. I'm thinking, 'How can I reach these brothers' and I didn't even know what they were doing."
Even though 80 percent of drug users are white, the focus on shootings in inner-city black neighborhoodshas created a warped view of the problem, Stanton said. By reading papers and watching television, he said, "you would think all drug users were black men in the ghettos."
His goal is to help change thatimage. When he's out leading anti-drug rallies or talking in schools, he dresses well so children can see that not only drug dealers wear nice clothes. He tries to teach children to love and respect themselves so they won't wind up without values.
"To me, it's not just the drugs, it's the material lifestyle," he said. "When you don't lookat yourself with any self-worth, material things fill the void."
Stanton credits his parents with teaching him strong enough values toavoid the money trap.
While he was growing up, his mother, Queen Ayacodabae Ramkissoon, stressed the importance of loving yourself. Hugging him tightly in her arms, she would call him special -- a king.
His parents married young and divorced when Darius was a toddler. Living with his mother, he moved around a lot while she worked at different jobs.
He became self-sufficient at an early age. By age 11,he was taking the bus from Baltimore to visit his grandparents in Annapolis on weekends. He flew alone to Jamaica for a vacation at age 13.
"I think being away from home, traveling around with his mom, helped to broaden his horizons," said his father, Leslie Stanton, a prominent black community leader and commissioner of the Annapolis Summer Basketball League.
When he was 13, Darius decided he wanted toplay basketball in the popular basketball league founded by his father. His mother, who was living in Buffalo, N.Y., at the time, reluctantly allowed him to move in with his grandparents.
Until he went to Annapolis High School, Stanton was too focused on basketball and church activities to notice the drug problem. He was shocked when some of his friends and teammates started experimenting with cocaine and blotter acid (LSD).
"I felt so uncomfortable, it started to separate friendships," Stanton said. "I stopped hanging around them as much because I wasn't into it."
He disliked beer the first time he tasted it. The smell of cigarettes made him sick. So Stanton easily turned down invitations to indulge at post-game parties.
But he had a harder time resisting the attraction of the prestige, the nice clothesand expensive cars flaunted by classmates who were dealing drugs.
"He would come home sometimes and talk about seeing guys that had $500, $600, $700 in ready cash," recalled his father. "I couldn't give him that kind of money. It was difficult, but I think he's happy now that he made the decision to refrain."
Stanton's dream of playing college ball ended after he graduated from high school in 1988. He was all set to go to Mitchell College in Connecticut when he was hurt in a car accident.
One year later, he was working in a shoe store and helping his mother run a summer theater group to raise awareness about drugs and AIDS in the Annapolis housing projects. Stanton was "rapping" with a group of children when Huntley J. Cross, the county's newly appointed drug policy coordinator, paid a visit.
"I immediately knew this was the man for us," said Cross, who hired Stanton as the youth coordinator a few months later.
In the last year, Stanton's life has changed dramatically. He traded in the casual look of being a student at Anne Arundel Community College for the professional look of an anti-drug leader.
With his self-confidence and youthful enthusiasm, he has moved easily from meetings with county officials to leading school seminars to coordinating anti-drug programs, Cross said.
The role Stanton cherishes is as mentor to thousands of children in the county. Above his desk, he has tacked up a watercolor of his favorite slogan, "Peace and Love," painted by a young girl. He is proud that children at the Robinwood public housing complex in Annapolis still sing a rap song he taught them.
He still finds time to shoot hoops with his buddies and his 39-year-old father, a former standout at Annapolis High and the University of Maryland who helps run the city's summer youth and men's leagues. Stanton doesn't want his old friends to think he's become a snob -- "a big businessman," as one classmate sneered.
But he recognizes his main role as youth coordinator is being a role model.
"I do this because drugs are killing our community," he said. "We have people whose mothers are addicted; men who are doing all kinds of nasty, inhumane things for drugs. I'm in love with my people, and that makes me want to do something, anything to help stop it."