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Vereen devotes his considerable energies to causes affecting kids


Several days ago he was in Amsterdam and yesterday he was in Baltimore, but his heart never moved an inch -- it was always with the children.

Entertainer Ben Vereen, long acclaimed for his stage and television work, has devoted much of his time in recent years to children's causes -- he was in Amsterdam working for UNICEF, for example, and in Baltimore to promote voluntarism in local schools and libraries.

"I try to help as I go," said Mr. Vereen, who starred in last night's Project Reach Out telethon on Maryland Public Television. "I just keep throwing optimism out."

Indeed, of the Tony Award winning actor's many talents, his high-voltage personality is perhaps the most potent. You imagine his gloriously sparkling smile and luminous eyes drawing even those in the cheap seats into the excitement of it all.

Headlining the three-hour telethon, which asked viewers to pledge volunteer hours to various educational programs, Mr. Vereen performed several songs in a show that also featured local musicians Gazze and Danna Bogart and was partially simulcast on WJZ-TV Channel 13. He will return to Baltimore to appear in the AIDS benefit "Lifesongs" on Sept. 28 at the Meyerhoff.

"I think kids are getting a bad rap today," Mr. Vereen, 44, said earlier in the afternoon, sipping bottled water in the few free minutes he had before rehearsals for the show began. "We need to exalt them more, give them a more positive image, make them VVTC become role models for themselves. As Kahlil Gibran said, the archer shoots the arrow; where the arrow goes, no one can know, but do be a strong bow."

Adults, he believes, tend to stress the negatives about kids. He points to how the media focused on violence out side some theaters showing the recent movie, "Boyz N the Hood," rather than on the positive message of the movie itself.

"They portrayed it as violence," Mr. Vereen said, "instead of how many people got [the message] and went back to the 'hood and did something about it."

Dressed in faded jeans, a purple T-shirt and a jaunty straw hat, Mr. Vereen was both the consummate professional and the friendly banterer as he practiced with musicians and technicians at the MPT studio. "Make me sound like Michael Jackson or Billy Eckstine, either one," he quipped to the sound men, although once he started singing, it became obvious his rich voice needed no dubbing from either of those artists.

While Mr. Vereen -- who won a Tony for "Pippin" and acclaim for his work in the TV mini-series "Roots" -- lends his talents to many causes, the one closest to his heart and his own life is the anti-drug crusade.

A former cocaine abuser, Mr. Vereen frequently speaks out against drugs to schoolchildren across the country and, two years ago, created Celebrities for a Drug-Free America so that other popular entertainers and athletes would join the effort.

Yesterday, as the Bush administration claimed victory in the drug war within its grasp, Mr. Vereen saw the situation quite differently.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell people it's getting better," he said. "From where I'm sitting, it doesn't look like it. Until you answer the question of unemployment, you're going to invite that element into the community. How can you say it's getting better, how can we say we're winning when people are dying?"

He doesn't blame the administration, however, saying people rather than government are going to have to solve the problem.

"I try to mobilize people into action and to realize the responsibility for their community is in their hands," he said.

The Brooklyn born and -raised entertainer hasn't forgotten his own community -- he is currently working to raise funds for a drug rehabilitation unit that he hopes to open there and name after his daughter, Naja. She died at 16 in an automobile accident about four years ago, a tragedy that shook Mr. Vereen and eventually pushed him toward entering a treatment program and giving up drugs.

Mr. Vereen, who lives in the New York area with his wife and two children -- another is in college and one lives in Minneapolis -- attributes his own drug use to "the party" that was the '60s. "Some people stayed at the party longer," he said.

"People in recovery are walking miracles," Mr. Vereen said. "We all have things we have to get over. You learn how to live with it, and not let it destroy your life."

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