The new guy kept his sunglasses on inside the room long after the sun set. He listened as the others — all huddled around a table in their wheelchairs — introduced themselves. One shot by a stray bullet. Another by an angry neighbor with a sawed-off shotgun when he was just 8. The others, over some neighborhood bs. Over a girl. Over … it doesn’t even matter anymore.
Here they were, on this hot August night, at the second meeting of paralyzed gunshot survivors.
Even when the five other guys coaxed him into sharing a few details of his story, the glasses stayed on, and the few words he uttered barely rose above a whisper: Marquel Nelson-Rainey. Shot in 2016. Caught in the crossfire.
After holding the first monthly meeting at Temple University, the group has moved to Carousel House, a city recreation center for people with disabilities.
Kimberly Fountain, the service coordinator for a medical assistance program, had seen a flier about the meeting and thought it might help her new, withdrawn client. Nelson-Rainey’s mother was surprised when he agreed to go. He hadn’t much opened up to anyone or anything that much in years, Fountain said she told her.
And he wasn’t opening up very much at the meeting.
But he was here, and the other guys were determined to draw him out. Especially Ty Shoemake, a gregarious guy who has a gift for connecting with people. He’d done it at the first meeting with Jalil Frazier, who was behind this idea of a group specifically for paralyzed gunshot survivors.
Frazier wasn’t at the second meeting, and while it was disappointing not to see him, I knew this would happen. They’d have good days and bad days. After the August meeting, I called him, and the parents of Azir Harris, a teenage paralyzed gunshot survivor whom I’ve also been hoping to get to one of the meetings. They should really come to the next meeting on Sept. 16, I told them. It would make them feel better, I promised. I’d seen it for myself when I watched the group work its magic on a new guy.
Somewhere between Shoemake joking around and several of the others guys cajoling Nelson-Rainey to open up, there it was: a hint of a smile.
And then, as the group formed a protective wall around him, the glasses came off.
As powerful as it is for the survivors to meet and bond, they need more — a dream team, if you will, of people who can help them navigate their emotional and financial struggles. It is, after all, one of the main reasons the group was started.
Shoemake is amazing at getting the other guys to open up, but it can’t fall just on him to be their confidant and counselor. Victoria Wylie, who has facilitated the meetings, is as warm and inviting and generous as they come, providing the guys with a warm meal at every meeting. (To help, email The.Donte.Wylie.Foundation@gmail.com.)
But we agreed there needs to be more.
We need professionals to help with accessible housing and jobs and financial support, if the men can’t work. Not a dusty piece of paper with a list of programs that may or may not help, nor a website they may or may not be able to access. Actual in-real-time help. And follow-through that is still lacking given the confusing web of local, state, and federal assistance programs, which as my colleague David Gambacorta and I have reported, are plagued by steep backlogs and in some cases can award as little as $1,500 to victims who may require lifelong care.
I turned to Melany Nelson, executive director of Northwest Victim Services, and asked her to come to the second hour of the next meeting at Carousel House, from 6 to 8 p.m. Wylie turned to some others as well. We’re hoping that this is a start of the guys not just being able to bond with fellow survivors but also connect with people who can actually help them help themselves.
One more note on Harris, the teenage gunshot survivor: a fund-raising basketball tournament in his name is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 14 (rain date Sept. 21), at Narberth Park (80 Windsor Ave., Narberth) from 10 a.m. to noon.
With an assist from his mom, Zach Bookbinder, a 14-year-old who came across my column about Harris’ struggles, set up a GoFundMe campaign to help offset some of the family’s expenses (https://www.gofundme.com/hoops-of-hope-for-azir). If you mean to support, now’s the time.