In the week since 14-year-old Dajae Coleman was shot, Evanston Pride basketball coach Michael Johnson has gotten angry, cried in the shower, and slept very little.
“It's probably the worst that I've felt,” Johnson said. “It’s just a senseless thing.”
Speaking at a panel convened by local community groups Monday night, Johnson and other Evanston residents began the monumental task of moving forward — and trying to make some sense out of the Evanston Township High School freshman’s tragic death.
Police say Dajae was shot by an Evanston man who believed Dajae was someone else. Dajae and his friends were walking home from a party at Church Street and Florence Avenue Saturday, Sept. 22, Wesley Woodson, 20, of Evanston, fired four shots at the group, according to police. Wooddson was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated discharge of a firearm on Friday.
Johnson and a handful of other panelists who knew Dajae said the community had a responsibility to come together to prevent another violent death. Before a crowded room at the McGaw YMCA Children’s Center, they talked about parenting, gun buyback programs, youth activities and the idea that it takes a village to raise a child.
Dajae’s Death Still Brings Up Raw Emotion
Johnson’s son saw Dajae just hours before he died, when his son and Dajae went out to dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings along with other members of the Evanston Pride basketball feeder team.
“The only reason Dae Dae didn’t stay with us was because his girlfriend was at the party,” Johnson’s son, Mike, told him the morning after Dajae died. Mike couldn’t stop crying on the phone, telling his father he believed he could have stopped his friend from going to the party.
Johnson’s fellow panelist, Saveion Shadd, is also a member of the Evanston Pride team. He choked up as he recalled learning of Dajae’s death.
“For this to happen to him, it’s just not right,” he said. “He was just that kid that minded his own business — laughing, joking and playing.”
Programs For Kids Are a Start
Asked what could be done to prevent future deaths like Dajae’s, Johnson said he believes youth programs like Evanston Pride are a part of the answer. He and fellow panelist Andre Patrick formed the basketball team last year, enrolling 84 kids in sixth through eighth grade. Their goal is not just to prepare kids to play for Evanston Township High School, but to make them the “best student-athletes they can be.”
Both men have full time jobs, and organized the team on a volunteer basis. In addition to the coaching they already provide (also from volunteers), they want to take the kids on trips, offer tutoring and bring in parents to take about their careers.
“Basketball is just a feeder for what we do,” Patrick says. “Ultimately … we want to send as many kids as possible off to college.”
Johnson cautioned that youth programs must focus not just on the kids who are “doing everything right,” like Dajae, but those kids who are struggling, too.
“I used to be in the streets a little bit. Did I have to be? No, it’s what I chose to do,” he said. “A lot of these kids, with the right guidance, they’ll do right.”
Mentoring programs — like the many already offered in Evanston — could be a starting place, he said.
Local business owner Tony Strong, who attended the meeting, described Evanston’s children as “the infrastructure of our community,” comparable to the roads and streets that make up the infrastructure of the city.
“We need people who are not afraid to get out there. Why should I be afraid of a 13, 14-year-old kid? But you see it every day,” he said. “That’s still a child, that’s still one of God’s children, and he still has a heart.”
Panelists Say Parents Need Support Services, Too
Helping kids like Woodson, said one panelist, comes down to providing support not just for kids but also for parents
“It is the Dae Daes that we’re losing, but it’s also the Wesleys,” said Evanston mom Kathy Graves. “He lost his life as well. He’s going to be in jail if he’s convicted.”
“If as a parent you’re lost and you don’t have a job and you don’t have resources or you only know a particular lifestyle, how do you expose your child to something else?” Graves asked.
Parent Leslie Robinson said she knew both Dajae’s and Woodson’s families.
“I’m still trying to put things together because I know he had good parents, but Wesley chose a different path,” she said.
Robinson volunteers with several local organizations in Evanston, including Family Focus and the Evanston Substance Abuse Coalition. She's also volunteered as a playground monitor, an experience that opened her eyes to the need in the community. When Robinson couldn’t come to school one day, she recalled, she later found out that a little girl broke down in tears and had to see the school social worker. Turns out, Robinson’s hug was the only one she got each morning.
More parents should volunteer, and more parents need to be aware of the resources available to them, Robinson said.
As a start, Johnson said he believes parents need to take responsibility for teaching their kids to be respectful of guns.
“My granddad was a hunter, so I’m a big fan of taking my kids hunting,” he said. “I think that teaches kids to have a better respect for guns, when they’ve seen what kind of destruction it can cause.”
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston), who sat in the audience, asked the panelists whether it was easy for kids to get guns. Many nodded their heads.
Panelists, Attendees Call For Gun Control
“How is it that easy for our kids here in Evanston, and in Chicago, to walk around with guns?” Schakowsky said, to applause. “It’s insane.”
Johnson said he knows some people go to gun shows in Indiana, which may have looser regulations. Another panelist said gang members use younger kids to help procure the weapons.
Carolyn Murray, co-chair of the Fifth Ward’s West Evanston Strategic Team (WEST), said the city had finally approved her group’s idea for a gun buyback program, something they’d been pushing for two months. The Evanston Community Foundation has supplied an initial grant of $1,000, and they hope to raise even more money to take guns off the street from accidental shootings or suicides.
Read Evanston Patch's complete coverage of Dajae Coleman's shooting.