Somewhere near the end of the night’s Christmas festivities, Victoria Wylie gently shushed the chatter and laughter inside the Fairmount Park recreation center to share a few words:
“Thank you for an amazing six months,” she told the men in wheelchairs.
“It’s really because of your strength and your resiliency that we’re here.”
What they had built, she told the men and their friends and relatives seated at tables covered in red tablecloths, was something special.
“A family,” she said as everyone nodded.
This might be a good time to admit that I had no idea what to expect, and probably no business asking, when I approached Wylie with the idea of facilitating a support group for paralyzed gunshot survivors.
All I knew is that when Jalil Frazier confided to me this spring that the only thing keeping him alive was talking to others in his situation, I couldn’t wait.
I’d known Frazier for about a year then, and chronicled his struggles as he tried to come to terms with a life shattered by a bullet. He’d thrown himself in front of three children during a 2018 robbery at a North Philadelphia barbershop where the then-working father of two was getting a haircut.
So, I called on Wylie, a dedicated and (this proved key) resourceful advocate whose brother was shot and killed in 2008 and who was running her own antiviolence group for young people. Scott Charles, trauma outreach coordinator for Temple University Hospital, graciously offered a room at the hospital for the first meeting in July.
I spread the word — and then I braced myself for no-shows — until one by one, a small group of men in wheelchairs arrived to support, in many cases, strangers. They all had their reasons, but it added up to something Tyrone Shoemake said:
“When I got shot in 1996, I wish I had someone to talk to,” he said, his quick jokes and tough love naturally having made him one of the group’s leaders. “I had to learn everything myself. It doesn’t have to be like that.”
As you might expect in a room full of strangers, the first meeting started off slow, but by the end, the men had formed a protective circle with their wheelchairs around Frazier, who shared the difficulties they all knew.
Leon Harris was an honors student when he was shot by robbers as he walked home from his job in 2007. Shoemake was shot over a girl nearly a quarter of a century ago. He has been paralyzed for more than half his life. John Muldrow prepared to die when he was shot at 19, but never could have prepared for the bureaucratic scavenger hunt for the most basic resources that would later consume him. For 14 years he dragged his body, and his wheelchair, up and down the front steps of his South Philadelphia home before he got a ramp from a city program his mother helped him find.
Some had jobs, some were still struggling to get back to school or work. Some had come to terms with their injuries, and others were wrestling with anger and grief that was damaging the most important relationships in their lives.
They quickly learned that no one — not friends, not family, not well-intentioned supporters — knew their struggles.
“As a parent who taught him how to walk and talk, this is something I can’t teach him,” said Troy Harris (no relation to Leon Harris). Troy Harris’ teenage son Azir was shot and paralyzed almost two years ago. “Only the people who have been in this situation can teach him. Here is where the best knowledge is, because everybody is in the same predicament.
"This group wasn’t just soul-healing for him. It’s soul-healing for me, too.”
The Harris family struggled for so long to find accessible public housing that they were eventually forced to separate — Azir and his parents in one unit in one part of the city, his older siblings in another unit in another part of the city. “It’s been hell for us,” said Troy Harris. “There really is no other way to say it.”
Frazier struggled to find accessible housing, too, until he and his family finally gave up on Philadelphia and moved to a one-level home in New Jersey. There, a neighbor built him a ramp.
For some, this room in a Philadelphia recreation center is the first time in a long time they’ve felt seen, and heard.
“There’s a certain perspective, especially when it comes to people of color, that we must have done something wrong — therefore, why help?” said Jaleel King, who was just 8 when he was shot by a South Philadelphia neighbor who was angry about fireworks being set off and tried to quiet them with a sawed-off shotgun.
And then last month, Mykkia McDonald showed up, the first woman to join. The room went quiet as she described the night, just eight months ago, when she was shot, gunfire blasting behind her as she stood with a friend, her cellphone crashing to the ground when one of 10 bullets ripped through her body.
Later, when I visited her at her home and saw the four steps out front, I was reminded of how even some of the basic resources that would help gunshot survivors reclaim their lives remain unavailable to them. At the Christmas party, Keenan Barnes, another member of the group, told me he was finally getting an outdoor chairlift after more than 10 years of scooting himself up and down the stairs.
These stories are all over Philadelphia. More than 1,400 people have been shot in the city so far this year. Of those victims, about 280 were killed, but hundreds more have been wounded in ways that go mostly unnoticed.
The emotional support these survivors receive from the group is undeniable. But as it grows, it becomes increasingly evident that they also need more tangibles: accessible housing, employment, the fundamental tools to help them regain their freedom, and their lives.
From the start, Wylie — who in addition to running her nonprofit holds down a full-time job with the city — told the group she didn’t intend to lead the group forever. No matter how empathetic she is, she’s not a paralyzed gunshot survivor, she tells them. This should be a group for paralyzed gunshot survivors, led by paralyzed gunshot survivors.
I agree that would be ideal, though I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wish Wylie could stay. She’s helped create a welcoming space where survivors not only feel supported, but motivated to pay it forward.
Shoemake, an avid basketball player, wants to start a team that includes more paralyzed gunshot victims — maybe he could get sponsorship through Temple University or Parks and Recreation? Several of the men talk about taking their stories and their message on the road, to schools and prisons, maybe even to fellow paralyzed gunshot survivors who might benefit from a house call.
Hear me. Hear them. They need help.
I’ve spent a lot of time with paralyzed gunshot survivors — many of whom are broken, trapped, and utterly invisible as the city continues to grapple with relentless violence that every day claims more victims.
Some die, more live, and more than we know are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives completely on their own. It’s nothing short of miraculous when they find the courage and strength to do that. It’s nothing short of shameful that in Philadelphia they have to.