JESS ninth grader Mekai Valman, above and below, was so moved by Edward Hawkins’ vivid tales, he took time after the program to talk to the former gang member and had him autograph his school book.
“I want you to wonder,” Lisa Menna told a roomful of Julius E. Sprauve School sixth, seventh and eighth graders on Tuesday, January 11. “I want you to wonder what is going on in your life. I want to cause you to wonder.”
Menna is the founder of the non-profit organization Cause to Wonder, which is dedicated to affecting positive change in the world. Menna, who is also a magician, took her anti-gang message and some tricks to JESS as part of Cause to Wonder’s Virgin Islands program, which she also presented at Bertha C. Boschulte School, Ivanna Eudora Kean High School and Addelita Cancryn Junior High School last week.
After welcoming the students in the JESS cafeteria, Menna introduced Edward Hawkins, who was perched on the stage behind a tall desk.
“Meeting Eddy changed my life and he’s here to tell you a story, one which gave me cause to wonder,” Menna said as she pushed the desk out of the way to reveal Hawkins’ torso, to which no legs were attached.
“Take a good look at me,” said Hawkins. “This is what your life will be like if you decide to join a gang. I was 20 years old and 6’1” when I was shot 13 times.”
Now 3-foot and 10-inches tall, Hawkins lost both of his legs after being shot by a young man he considered a son. Hawkins shared grisly details of the shooting and of his life growing up in a Camden, New Jersey violent gang with the JESS students.
“I had a little kid in my life when I was selling drugs,” he said. “He had nothing; his mother was a drug addict and his dad was in jail. So I looked after him and took care of him.”
“Then one day he and some friends shot me 13 times,” Hawkins said. “And I thought he was like a son.”
Hawkins urged the students to stay away from gangs and not to make the same mistakes he did in life.
“I’ve been in prison for 17 years of my life,” he said. “I’m from Camden, New Jersey, and I’ve been a Blood all my life. I done and seen things I never thought I’d be a part of and now I’m in a chair with a half a body.”
“Right now use this information so you don’t become the person I was,” said Hawkins.
Students questioned Hawkins about how he entered the gang and what his life was like once he was a member.
“The first thing they do to you is use your body,” Hawkins said. “You no longer belong to yourself. The gang was body in and body out, so if you joined, you had to murder someone some day.”
It was a friend of his aunt’s who made the gang life seem glamorous, instead of the horror that it is, Hawkins explained.
“There was a guy who was with my aunt who always had money, always had a new car,” he said. “I wanted to be like him. When I was 13, he stood a man up against a wall and shot him in the head right in front of me.”
Not long after, Hawkins committed the first of four murders he would be responsible for before turning his life around.
“I was 13 years old the first time I murdered someone,” he said. “The second time I was 17; the third time I was 20 and the fourth time I was 21. When you take someone’s life there are repercussions and consequences.”
“I used to have nightmares and wake up with cold sweats with dead people all around me,” said Hawkins. “You reap what you sow. There are all kinds of horrors that come back to haunt you.”
Although many young men and women look to gangs to fill a void of family or friends, gang members are not anyone’s friends, Hawkins told the JESS students.
“These people are not your friends or your family,” he said. “When you go to jail, you go alone. If you are in a gang there are three options and you are looking at the lucky one.”
“Right here, me, I am the lucky one,” said Hawkins. “The other two options are jail or death.”
It’s important to commit to school and to keeping their lives positive, Hawkins told the students.
“No one can force you to do something you don’t want to do,” he said. “It’s not hard to just say no. Stop trying to follow these gangs; it’s not cool.”
“There is nothing you can gain from being in a gang,” said Hawkins. “I’m telling you the true facts here. That’s why I’m here in this wheelchair talking to you right now — so you don’t end up like this.”
Hawkins left the students will one final message.
“I see greatness in all of you,” he said. “Choose your friends wisely.”
Hawkins made quite an impression on many JESS students, several of whom stopped him outside of the cafeteria and asked him to autograph their books.
“I want him to sign my book so I can remember him and his message,” said Mekai Valman, a ninth grader at JESS. “The program was great. I am scared of that life.”
“His story was so sad,” said Kohun Eugene, also in the ninth grade. “I want to remember him.”
For more information about Cause to Wonder, check out www.causetowonder.org.