SOUTH CHINA — Maine students touched by the story of Darius Weems, a young Georgia man with a debilitating and fatal illness, raised money to bring him to the state, hear his inspiring message and listen to a little rap music.

Through the Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program, middle schoolers from across Maine raised more than $4,000 in six weeks to bring Weems, 22, to two schools this week. Weems suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic, degenerative disease that weakens the muscles and typically results in death before age 30.

On Tuesday, Weems navigated around in his wheelchair as students decorated the Erskine Academy gymnasium in preparation for an evening event, which was scheduled to include a question-and-answer period about the award-winning documentary “Darius Goes West.” Many of the students watched the 2007 documentary earlier this year and were so moved by the story, they sold raffle tickets, T-shirts and bracelets to raise the money needed to bring Weems to the state.

The movie follows Weems and his friends on a road trip from Georgia to California.

“Someone in the situation he is in can still pursue dreams without letting something like a disability hold them back from being whatever they want to,” said Joshua Breault, 14, of China Middle School.

Students from as far away as Machias were attending the Tuesday event, during which Weems also performed some of his rap music. Today, he’s scheduled to appear at Biddeford Middle School.

Throughout the two days, Weems will speak to about 1,000 Maine students before he heads off to upstate New York.

As students hung posters, Weems said he has enjoyed his time in Maine so far, which included a lobster dinner and a fishing expedition. With a soft voice, Weems said that when his older brother Mario died of Duchenne muscular dystrophy at age 19, he was compelled to do something to spread the word and begin efforts to raise money to find a cure. At the time, Darius was just 10.

“Losing him opened my eyes and showed me how to stay strong,” he said. “We all have our own purpose in life. Going through this fatal disease and being able to motivate people through my situation shows me I have a purpose in life.”

When he was 15, Darius and a group of friends set off from Georgia to California in hopes of getting Darius’ wheelchair customized on the MTV show “Pimp My Ride.” The journey was captured on film and has been shown in schools throughout the country, where students have embraced the message of friendship and strength. The documentary has won more than a dozen film festival awards.

“I have never in my teaching career been so moved to action as by ‘Darius Goes West,'” said Hauns Bassett, who’s been in education since 1997 and with Jobs for Maine’s Graduates for eight years. “Once you watch it, you will absolutely get it.”

Jobs for Maine’s Graduates is a statewide nonprofit that serves more than 4,000 students from grades 6 through 12. The program targets students who face barriers, according to its website.

Zach Needham, 13, of China Middle School, said the movie showed him not to pity those who are disabled.

“Even someone who is disabled like Darius can do big events like this,” he said.

Bassett said students who’ve watched the movie have told him it’s given them the push they needed to try out for a school play or athletic team. It’s also helped them learn the importance of helping others.

“I have seen these kids come to me and say they began to stand up for kids at school who didn’t fit in socially,” he said.

Weems, who performs rap music to express his feelings, said he hopes the students learn to believe in themselves.

“Sometimes if you put a little effort into something, you don’t know how far it can go,” he said.

Susan Cover — 621-5643

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