State News

Fatal shootings of teens weighs on Wilmington

Posted January 14

— Lloyd James can still remember the last conversation he had with his nephew, 14-year-old Aljhean Williams, before Aljhean was shot dead on a Turnkey street on Jan. 3, 2016.

Aljhean had called James that day to come and pick him up.

"I told him to go home and I'd see him tomorrow," James said. "Well tomorrow never came and the phone call I got wasn't the phone call I wanted."

Over the course of a year, Aljhean's family members say they have experienced a roller coaster of emotions.

They have had feelings of loss and sadness, but also have found a new sense of motivation and joy in the creation of an organization in Aljhean's name to help kids in the Wilmington area.

"They say all of us have got a purpose in life and his was a little shorter, but who is to say his is shorter?" James said. "He might be helping more kids than we realize right now with this organization."

A bigger purpose

This year, James and Aljhean's mother, Portia, launched a nonprofit called Aljhean Williams Teens Against Violence in her son's honor. The foundation would raise money to sponsor a group of students each year to participate in a sport or other extracurricular activity of their choosing.

Portia said her son was a huge sports fan and loved to play basketball.

She said the organization also will include a monthly excursion for local teens to visit different venues both in Wilmington and outside the city.

In December the organization took kids to see a movie and in early 2017 the group's leaders are planning a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

On a recent Sunday, the organization hosted a cookout at the William Hayes Community Center. At 3 p.m., about 100 people, many of them children, were munching on hot dogs and potato chips. As the children threw a football around or sprinted to a nearby playground, the adults huddled around tables or in circles of chairs, some of them discussing the organization and how they could become involved.

Several organizers wore a shirt bearing a logo one of the area's children helped design, an indication, they said, that the children will always be part of the group's decision-making process.

Portia said part of the organization's purpose will be to expose teens to more possibilities and paths in life.

"Sometimes children don't have someone to show them better," she said. "This is what they see, Wilmington, and nothing else. What we are trying to do is introduce them to more because it starts with that. When you see something different, the light bulb can go on, and then they can say, 'I like that. I want to do that.'"

Selena Cobbs, who is Aljhean's first cousin once removed, said the group will set up mentoring programs to shepherd young people toward opportunities or careers they may not have otherwise considered.

"This city is not as small as they think it is," Cobbs said. "There's more to this city than this area of Turnkey, that wall back there."

The organization will initially focus on New Hanover County, but could soon expand its sights to Brunswick.

Portia said her son always wanted to share his experiences with his friends and through this organization she hopes to broaden the horizons of many more local teens and hopefully curb the violence in the community.

"This was a tragedy and life lost, but we are going to use that to help someone else," she said. "That's what we want to do with this organization. God gave us him for a season and this is his purpose."

A year of firsts

James and Aljhean shared a love for basketball and even had the same favorite professional team -- the Lakers.

For the past few years, when the Lakers came to play in Charlotte, James would go to the game with friends and would take Aljhean along.

When the Lakers came in December, James said he and his friends couldn't go to the game.

"When there is a part missing, you just don't want to do nothing," he said. "To me, maybe next year it will get better, but right now this year it has been too hard to accept all the time that you did something that they aren't there for anymore."

Cobbs, with Portia's blessing, helped name Aljhean. The first part came from Alton, Aljhean's father's name; the second from Jean, which the family chose because they liked Sean but didn't want to give the boy that name.

Standing a right turn and a windy block away from where fresh flowers and a UNC Tar Heels basketball marked the spot where Aljhean died, Cobbs remembered him.

"He wasn't a violent person. He was the epitome of peace," she said, recalling how he liked talking to girls and also remembering his love for basketball.

The organization bearing his name, Cobbs said, will help carry Aljhean's spirit of peace on.

Portia said her son would go pop popcorn and then the family would watch sports games on TV. She said she hasn't really been able to watch any sports since her son's death.

"He was a child who played travel basketball so it's hard for me to see his coach and I see the other kids and my son is supposed to be there," she said. "It's really hard not to go to his games."

She said the holidays also brought up many emotions for her and she didn't feel like celebrating much or taking part in many of the things she used to enjoy about the holidays.

The continued violence in the community also has taken a toll on Portia.

"You go around in the daytime and you hear gunshots, it brings up memories," she said. "The last time I heard somebody got shot, I immediately started crying, and I didn't know if the person got killed or what, but it's just like, 'Oh my gosh, can it please stop?'"

Not another statistic

Portia said she also is seeing the toll of violence on the teens in the community and doesn't see as many teens "hanging around" anymore.

A general consensus among neighbors, friends and family is that Aljhean was shot while walking through the neighborhood on the night of Jan. 3 because the gunman or gunmen mistook him for someone else.

She said kids don't want to be another statistic.

"They don't want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," she said. "Unless they have somewhere to go, they aren't just hanging out anymore."

And she said some teens have just shut down because of their grief.

"They are at the point that they don't really trust a lot of people because we still don't know who killed Aljhean, and that bothers me when a kid tells me that," she said. "This is about whether they are going to live or die."

No arrests have been made in Aljhean's killing.

Stephanie Simpson, the mother of 16-year-old Shane Simpson, who was killed Dec. 20, 2015, in a drive-by shooting that left four other teens injured, said she also has noticed a change in the youth.

"My son's death has really done a lot of damage to a lot of people," she said. "His friends didn't want to go to school. Since my boy's death, it has done a lot of damage to a lot of kids."

Four people -- two of them teenagers themselves -- were charged in Simpson's murder.

Extra support

Portia said therapy has been extremely helpful for her and her family to navigate the waves of emotions that come, but many local teens aren't getting that extra support.

Seeing a need, the leaders of the nonprofit added meetings where teens are able to talk about how they are feeling and what they want to do in life.

She said it was difficult at first to get the kids to open up, but after the adults stopped talking, the teens were able to lead the conversations.

"I think most kids, for a lot of them sadness turns to anger," she said. "They don't know how to challenge those emotions, so they act up or say things. I always say kids aren't bad people, they just make bad choices sometimes, so we just try to get them to talk about their feelings."

Even with the meetings though, Portia always suggests that teens get extra support or use the counseling services in schools.

"Losing something that you saw, if not every day then talked on social media with every day, that's hard even if they are not your family," she said. "Going to therapy is not a sign of weakness. It's a sign of strength."

A part of the solution

James said he hopes that through the work of the organization created in his nephew's namesake, more kids will not become victims of violence in Wilmington.

James and Portia said it was unfortunate that it took the death of one of their family members to make them want to reach out more and make a difference in their own community.

"I believe God has a way of bringing people together because it's not like I didn't care what was going on, but if it wouldn't have been my son, would I have been reaching out?" Portia said. "But with all of the things I see going on, it's like I have to be a part of it."

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