When I was younger, I wasn’t living right. I was going in and out of jail, running the streets, selling drugs, playing with guns, and not being a good role model.
In 2012, when I was 26, I was shot seven times during a robbery and I became instantly paralyzed. I remember I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything – I just laid there and started praying, asking God to please save me.
Today I am a quadriplegic. When you’re younger, especially if you’re not living right, you think, maybe I’ll go to prison – if I die, I die. Now, I live in the in-between. I use a motorized wheelchair, and I live in a nursing home in New York. People have the misconception that nursing homes are only filled with older people, but many around the country are filled with people like me, young people that have experienced gun violence or other traumatic injuries and now need daily assistance.
I wish others that haven’t experienced gun violence would understand there’s a lot that comes with it. You don’t only either die by gun violence or survive. If you are wounded by gun violence, especially if you are paralyzed – it’s not just that you can’t walk. The medical complications and lifestyle changes that accompany it are significant. Some of my friends here have been in a nursing home for 30 years.
When I survived my shooting, I knew I was alive for a reason, but I didn’t initially know what that reason was. After physical rehabilitation, I was transferred to a facility where there was a good mix of people that were younger like me and older, many of whom had also been affected by gun violence. I’m grateful that I had access to others that had or were experiencing that same thing, because they could relate to what I was going through, and we would sit outside and talk and I could learn from them as they offered advice and resources, and just shared stories and knowledge about how to live in my new reality. That’s how OPEN DOORS came about.
OPEN DOORS is a network of artists, activists and advocates motivated by community building, gun violence prevention, and disability rights. Centered within OPEN DOORS are the Reality Poets, which is a group of current and former residents of our NYC nursing home that educate the youth in underserved communities about the consequences of running the streets. We don’t come with judgment – we just share our real lived experiences and that guns lead not only to jail or death but also to “life in the chair.”
When OPEN DOORS was formed, and we began to speak to the youth, I felt like this may be my calling. For the longest time I had been tearing down my community with the way I was living; now it was time for me to fight to build it back up. I stuck with it, and today I am the Director of OPEN DOORS. Since its inception, OPEN DOORS has created albums, an online magazine, hosted virtual open-mics and in-person events, and as the Reality Poets we have gone to schools, recreation centers, summer youth programs and after-school programs to speak with the youth. For some, hearing our stories is a life-changing experience.
When OPEN DOORS was formed we could share our lived experiences with one another, and now we share them with others both so that young people don’t make the same choices we did and so that others understand that we are still PEOPLE with feelings and needs. I want people to understand that we are not just one thing: we are artists, we are visual artists and cinematographers, music producers and rappers, poets and dreamers. We didn’t stop living and dreaming the day we were shot or injured or the day we were told we were not going to walk again.
As part of my advocacy, I also wanted to call attention to the treatment of nursing home residents. Because I’ve been incarcerated before, it struck me that many of the rules at the nursing facility where we lived were similar – these are supposed to be places of healing, but it was like being back in jail. The treatment we were receiving just wasn’t right, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. So I created #NursingHomeLivesMatter, and OPEN DOORS created the Fire Through Dry Grass documentary that called attention to our treatment during the pandemic.
It can be easy to fall into depression when you are up against so much – a healthcare system that sometimes seems to work against you, a society literally built for able-bodied people, and the realization that your day-to-day lifestyle is going to be totally different. I’m fortunate I have a good support system to help me. Through everything, I wanted to be strong for my daughter, who was four when I was shot. I refused to let her see me down or depressed and miserable. I wanted her to continue to see me be strong, even with my newfound limitations. I’ve learned that whatever you put your mind to, you can do. I’ve written poetry, produced a hip-hop album, presented before Congressional staff to introduce federal legislation, and I helped produce music on a documentary.
Gun violence really can happen to anyone. I want people who have experienced gun violence to know that you still have a life and you can still live a productive life and be strong.