This is a piece that Andrea wrote for an email that we sent. We are sharing it here, too.
A little over a week ago, I sent an email with the news that one of the young men we’ve worked with was shot and killed the night before. Last Tuesday I went to Gio’s funeral. Several hours after I got home, I learned that two more of the young men we’ve worked with had been shot that day. One of them was killed. The other will live.
On Friday I went to Aaron’s vigil. Tomorrow I will go to his funeral.
It took me longer to write a note to all of you about it this time. It is not new that our young people are being shot and killed. The first year we started working with this partner agency was the first year we had to cancel a session because the young men were going to a funeral for their friend and peer instead of going climbing.
That was 2010. Our kids have attended funerals for their peers every year since then. This year is the first time that any of the young men we’ve worked with have been killed. Two dead in a week was hard.
Our partner agency has buried 15 young men this year.
It’s taken me longer to write to you this time. It’s harder to find the words. It’ harder to know even what I want to say to you. Maybe I want to tell you the horrific sound of Gio’s mother’s wailing grief. Maybe I want to tell you how moved I was by the young people who waited patiently for an hour and more until his mother was ready to leave, and then gathered by Gio’s grave. Maybe I want to tell you about the tough-looking young man who kissed the top of his girlfriend’s head, then pulled his buddy near and held him in a long, intimate embrace. Maybe I want to tell you about the photo I have of the two young men who were shot together five days ago – it’s of them paddling together, literally sharing a boat. Maybe I want to tell you about the young men at Aaron’s vigil. The young man we’ve paddled with for two years with silent tears on his cheeks telling me he was OK. The young man I don’t know sobbing in his friend’s arms. Young men lined up at the wrought iron fence, hands holding the bars above them, faces pressed into the spaces between the bars, crying as they paid respects through the fence where candles burned and balloons stood guard.
Maybe what I really want to tell you is how desperately I don’t want to go to another funeral for an 18 year old kid. Because our kids should be burying us decades from now; we shouldn’t be burying them now.
What I will tell you about is the young man who lived on Tuesday. I have a picture of him from a camping trip in 2013 with a breakfast of bagel French toast with two Reece’s peanut butter cups, a thick layer of peanut butter, and syrup. The smile on his face is exuberant. Ebullient.
That smile stayed put through the trip. It was biggest when his brother arrived. Staff from our partner agency arrived early in the morning of the second day of the camping trip – after a 4-hour drive from Chicago – with his brother. His brother was in a treatment facility, and the staff had secured a 24 hour pass in order for him to join us for part of the camping trip. When he arrived, the young man who lived on Tuesday was literally bouncing in his joy and pride, announcing “This is my brother!”
We didn’t see him much the next summer, but we did see him on a paddling program at the end of the summer. I had a long conversation on the water with him. It was sobering. It was scary. It had hope in it. He told me that he was a “renegade.” He would kill for anyone who paid him. Both sides of the neighborhood paid him, because he would go into situations that other guys wouldn’t. He would do things that other guys wouldn’t. It seemed the level of violence he would engage in was astronomical.
In the same conversation – in nearly the same breath – he told me he was working to get out. With the help of his mentor, who he referred to as a father to him, he was trying to get out of the gang.
We’ve known kids who did get out. The first kid was one of the very first kids we worked with in this program. The year before, on a cycling program, he convinced us to ride to the zoo. I will never forget the sight of him at the tiger enclosure, face pressed against the glass with the four year olds, because it was the first time he’d seen a tiger. He was 15 years old. The next year, at 16 years old, he made the decision to leave the gang. We learned he’d done this when he showed up to programming with bruises all over his face because he’d gotten “Beat Out” – he’d had to make an appointment with the gang to get beat up in order for them to let him out. Our partner agency can sometimes negotiate with the gang to let kids out without getting beat up. They’d allowed this guy to do that, but he’d kept hanging around his friends – who were still in the gang. So the gang made him get beat out – they forced him to cut all ties and to get hurt. If you’ve never seen someone with their entire face bruised, I hope that you never do.
I don’t know if our guy who survived Tuesday’s shooting got Beat Out. Or if he left at all. I know that he showed up in programming again the next year, exuberant as ever, and showing all the new guys the ropes – showing them how to fit a life jacket, letting them know that if they fell over they’d be all right because our staff would get them back in the boat.
His life is on the edge. He will survive this shooting. I don’t know if he will stay in the gang or leave, or if he’s already left and he was shot anyway. I don’t know if he’ll live long enough to show up in programming next year. I don’t know if he’ll continue to live an incredibly violent life, or if he’ll find the wherewithal to choose a life that forces him to cut ties with all of his friends, leaving him to share his bubbling, odds-defying, incongruent joy with all of the other people he comes in contact with.
Our city and our country have big problems to face, and our youth are balanced on the knife thin edge of them. Whatever it is that you are doing to help tip them over to the safe side of that edge – please keep doing it! It may seem small and silly and inconsequential. It can’t possibly feel sillier than believing that kayaking with kids can save their lives. Or change their lives.
This is what I will do. I will continue to welcome this young man to paddle with us. To cycle, to climb, to camp. To get a glimpse of what could be possible. Because I would rather see him next summer with his face gruesomely bruised, than get the text telling me that he’s been killed.
I said last week, and I will say it again:
Not a single one of us can make our city or our country safe on our own.