Good thing we can turn off our cameras on Zoom calls. Because as Victoria Wylie played a slideshow of a year’s worth of memories on a recent celebratory call, I found myself getting a little emotional:
There, a photo of the first meeting of the support group for paralyzed gunshot survivors on July 15, 2019. It was in a basement room at Temple University Hospital, and I worried that no one but Wylie, the group’s facilitator, would show up.
And there, one of the many group photos taken at the Carousel House recreation center in West Philly, where the meetings were later held each month as the group grew.
One of the photos commemorated the night a young man showed up in dark sunglasses and barely said a word — at least until Ty Shoemake and others wore him down like relentless big brothers. By the end of the night, the glasses were off and everyone was smiling.
Another photo captured Mykkia McDonald, the first woman to join the group just months after she was shot. I will never forget how McDonald rendered the room silent the night she lifted her hoodie to show the scar that nearly split her stomach in half.
And, oh, the photos of the Christmas party. Wylie, part task master, part big sister, went all out: red tablecloths, music, food for days.
That night, the support group became a family.
“One year!” Wylie exclaimed while the others on the call Wednesday night cheered. They laughed when she playfully held up a bottle of sparkling apple cider in celebration.
The group was started last July after Jalil Frazier, a 30-year-old gunshot survivor I had been writing about, confided that as he struggled to rebuild his life, he found the most comfort by connecting online with other paralyzed survivors. Frazier, a young father, was shot in 2018 while protecting three children during a robbery at a Philadelphia barbershop.
I had no idea if I could really make good on my promise when I told him that if a support group for paralyzed gunshot survivors didn’t exist, I’d help him start one. But I put out a call, and month after the month, I watched the members grow not only in number, but also in confidence.
In February, I proudly watched Frazier and Jaleel King testify at a City Hall hearing on gun violence. The conversation on gun violence, they told politicians, was too often framed between those who lived and those who died, with little thought (or services) for those who suffered life-altering injuries.
Who could have guessed that less than a month later, the world would stop?
As everyone struggled to come to terms with the coronavirus, I worried about the effect of isolation on the survivors still digging their way out of the physical and emotional aftermath of their injuries.
I was thrilled when Wylie moved the meetings online, but wondered if the group would survive.
They only got stronger. Until recently, they met virtually every week. Now, they meet every other week.
Leon Harris, 30, is among those who call in regularly. Same with King.
Harris was a 17-year-old honors student when he was shot by robbers as he walked home from his job in 2007. King, 44, was 8 when he was shot by a South Philadelphia neighbor who was angry that kids were setting off fireworks and tried to quiet them with a sawed-off shotgun.
Both joined the group in hopes of helping Frazier, but found renewed perspective in a group they wished existed when they were putting their shattered lives back together.
“A lot of us didn’t have this when we were going through it,” said Charles Horton, 49, a longtime Philadelphia disability advocate who was shot 31 years ago.
As the call came to an end, there was a rush of “Love y’all! Love y’all! Love y’all’s” before, one by one, they clicked off.
Until next time.
And then my phone rang. It was Frazier, who had started it all.
We reminisced about the day we blindly plotted the creation of the group. He teased me for never knowing how to take no for an answer, including the day I knocked on his door to ask him to share his story with me.
And then he said something that nearly brought me to tears again: