Class of 2012: With a Mountain to Climb, Bonita Baldwin Reaches the Summit
FOURTH IN A SERIES
By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau
When she first moved into the dorms as a 43-year-old freshman, Bonita Baldwin glanced out the window toward her old home near 27th Avenue.
She insisted that God had placed her at GCU, less than one mile from the neighborhood where she used to buy cocaine. She felt the pull of the streets. But she also felt empowered.
Baldwin said her friends, faith and five years of painful rehabilitation kept her focused on her academic goals. Many of those people remember meeting the gospel singer four years ago, when she walked onto campus intent on taking control of her life.
The former high school dropout, known around campus as “Mama B,” is scheduled to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Christian studies. She will sing the national anthem at each of GCU’s four commencement ceremonies.
“I’m still growing up, still learning and being restored,” said Baldwin, who is known for her emotion-packed performances and soulful singing with the New Life Singers traveling choral ensemble.
“I’m secure here,” Baldwin said about GCU. “God has put some amazing people in my life. I’ve found friendships that will last a lifetime.”
If GCU is the safe place where she realized her potential, rock bottom is the dark place that shaped her.
Baldwin, now 47, suffered two heart attacks brought on by years of smoking crack. She abandoned her five children at different times, most recently giving up her youngest son for adoption when she was desperate and strung out. She remembers broken bones, cigarette burns and snapshots from abusive relationships.
“My relationships have all been horrible, except my relationship with Jesus,” she said.
Mending her relationships
Baldwin reconciled years ago with daughters Cloe, 29, and twins Journe and Symone, 21. The twins briefly attended GCU and lived with their mom, but transferred back east after mending their relationship. She has yet to reconcile with her sons Christopher, 18, and Caleb, 17. She gave up the latter for adoption when he was a baby.
The names of her five children are tattooed on her right bicep in a heart-shaped symbol.
Born in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., Baldwin attended Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia. She was raised by a strict Pentecostal minister uncle and his wife, after her father had died of a heroin overdose and after her mother’s alcoholism had grown serious.
Now 35 years sober, her mother, Linta Baldwin, 67, plans to watch the streaming video of her daughter’s graduation from back home with other relatives.
When students listen to Baldwin’s stories, they tend to listen intently, drawn in by her booming voice, brutally honest sense of humor and openness about her past. She has hosted students at her campus apartment, cooking fried chicken and Thanksgiving turkey for those unable to get home.
An inspiration to others
Derek Drake, a GCU junior, said Baldwin personifies many of the stories of pain and redemption the New Life choir conveys to audiences.
“It’s inspiring for me, and I think what it really does for me is give me such a hope that if God can transform her life the way he did, he can transform any person’s life,” said Drake, who along with Baldwin is touring the Southwest with New Life this spring.
She needs to complete a couple of summer classes to finish her bachelor’s degree, but Baldwin intends on having her degree wrapped up so that she can begin working on a master’s degree.
Terri Faust, administrative assistant in the Student Life office, said she remembered the day Baldwin confidently strolled into the office and “spilled her guts,” nervous and anxious about blending into the GCU community.
“She didn’t slow down,” Faust said. “She told her whole life story, pretty much with all the color and humor that only Bonita can do. She said God had placed her here and that she would be the first in her family to graduate from college.
“From that moment, I decided I would be there to walk beside her,” Faust said.
At graduation, Baldwin said she merely wants to hold her own emotions in check.
She is tasked with singing the national anthem at the end of a long journey that started, she said, when she decided to drop out of high school to drink and use drugs. She earned her GED when she was younger, but the degree from GCU will mark a major benchmark in her recovery.
“I just want to make it through,” Baldwin said of singing at graduation.
“I don’t want to break down,” she said. “It’s going to be highly emotional.”
Contact Michael Ferraresi at 639.7030 or [email protected].