Leo Leyva and Charles Winters, who both became paraplegic in the crossfire of Chicago-street violence, were presented with GED certificates last week in a ceremony at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago. The story of their journey and unlikely friendship was recently highlighted in this article published by the Chicago Tribune.
Dressed in black gowns and caps with orange tassels, two men wheeled themselves to the front row, turned to each other and shook hands.
This day had been long in coming.
It has been eight years since Leo Leyva was shot. Even longer for Charles Winters, who was wounded in 2005.
Having grown up in Chicago neighborhoods where violence has been as consistent as the seasons, the men looked upon the moment as somewhat of a miracle — on that day, they would earn their GEDs.
Such an achievement doesn’t always draw a crowd, a choir and news crews. Winters’ sister, though, felt the gravity of it all and reached for a paper napkin to wipe away tears as her two little boys captured the moment on their phones.
“Graduations, and stuff like that, were emotional for me because of where we are from,” Chanelle Winters, 28, later explained, as another large tear rolled down her face. “A lot of people lose their lives to gun violence. So we like to reward every accomplishment, big or small.
“It has been a battle to get him to therapy. To get the proper care, the proper equipment. I graduated from high school and have a (college) degree. I wanted the rest of my siblings to do so as well,” she went on. “So for him to be taking the step to getting everything on track? It’s a real teardrop.”
Last year in Chicago, Labor Day weekend saw 65 people shot — 13 of them fatally. The toll was striking even in a city that regularly witnesses such fatal violence during the summer.
After earning their certificates last Wednesday, a few days before the start of this year’s holiday weekend, Leyva and Winters patiently told their stories over and over to reporters who had gathered.
Their message was clear:
People can still rise above violence.
It just takes time and help, love and support.
And in their case, a chance meeting on the Red Line.
You can do more
The Tribune first wrote about Leyva, 26, in July as part of a monthslong examination of the financial costs of gun violence.
Leyva grew up on the Northwest Side of Chicago in a neighborhood that has since grown safer. But in September 2009, he was driving around the Avondale neighborhood with friends, some of them gang-affiliated, celebrating Mexican Independence Day by waving a flag outside the car. Someone on the street grabbed the flag, and Leyva, who was 18 at the time, and his friends got out of the car to confront them.
Shots rang out just as Leyva had turned to leave. He crumpled to the ground, immediately aware that he couldn’t move his legs.
The bill for treating a gunshot wound: $21,000 for the first 35 minutes
Leyva was left partially paralyzed and has since used braces or a wheelchair to move around. After leaving the hospital, he went to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago — which has since been renamed the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab — and has been a patient ever since.
Though it would take two years for him to battle through the depression that kept him homebound, Leyva eventually saw hope and promise at the AbilityLab. He met coaches and peer mentors who pushed him to play on basketball and softball teams. He started volunteering for research studies with doctors, who were inspired by his resilience and commitment to get more movement back.
In January 2016, the AbilityLab offered yet another opportunity for Leyva, who had dropped out of high school when he was shot.
The staff had just launched a free GED program for people with spinal cord injuries, offering mentoring at the lab’s vocational training center on Fairbanks Court in Streeterville.
Leyva, who wants to work as a pharmacist one day, was the first to enroll.
“Getting our diplomas, hopefully it (tells) people with spinal cord injuries that it is not the end of the world,” Leyva said. “You can do more.”
It’s a mantra Leyva learned from peer mentors, who counseled him through his initial depression, urging him to not worry about why the injury happened but to trust he could handle it and to embrace his situation.
Leyva doesn’t just believe in the ability to thrive after tragedy — he preaches it. In July 2016, he was exiting the elevator at the Lake Street Red Line when he saw Winters, who was also in a wheelchair. He decided to introduce himself and invite him to join the gym at the rehab center.
Knowing how much support people with spinal cord injuries need, Leyva believes it’s his mission to provide it.
“I’m in a chair (too),” Leyva said he will often tell people. “Let’s get something going for each other. Let’s build this relationship.”
Joy is mine
With a wide, handsome smile that belies his story, Winters, 29, describes himself as the bully of the Bronzeville block where he grew up. Though slight at 4 feet 11 inches, Winters said he was known as a capable fighter and joined a local gang.
“I was a terrible kid,” he said. “Ain’t listen to anybody. I always did my own thing. Didn’t care about nothing. If I felt I wanted it, I took whatever.”
Winters was 17, playing dice with friends in August 2005 in Bronzeville when the group took a walk to a local store. They saw a group of guys they didn’t recognize, enough to cause a fight on blocks plagued by gang rivalry.
“We got ready to defend the neighborhood,” he said. “And two guys came to the curb and just started shooting.”
Winters suffered an “incomplete” injury, which means he has weakness and impaired sensation from the midchest down, according to officials at the AbilityLab.
The devastating results of the shooting, however, weren’t a wake-up call for him. Winters was charged with carrying a gun in 2011. Street life was still haunting him, he explained. He feared he was a target. Any loud slam gave him a jolt, and having the gun made him feel safer, he said.
After serving a month in Cook County Jail on the gun charge, and then the birth of his son in 2014, Winters was ready to change. But it wasn’t easy. Efforts to find good jobs for someone in a wheelchair with a felony background failed.
Then he bumped into Leyva.
“He was getting off the elevator. I was getting on. He asked me what I do in my spare time,” Winters recalled. “He said, ‘You should come to RIC. Get a (gym) membership.'”
Leyva texted Winters immediately with the address of the rehab center.
On his first visit, Winters saw a sign about the GED program and inquired. The woman at the desk, he said, encouraged him to give it a try.
He began the program in August 2016. A year later, Winters, who is an artist and has been free of arrests since 2011, is thinking about college.
As they presented the two men with graduation certificates last week, staff at the lab fought tears.
“The future is yours,” said Pam Capraro, manager of the vocational rehabilitation program at AbilityLab. “Your time is now.”
With about 30 people watching, Leyva spoke about how many individuals have helped him. He talked about how happy he was. He then handed Winters the mic.
“What can I say? If it wasn’t for you, that day on the train, I wouldn’t he here,” Winters said, addressing Leyva. “I could have been dead right now. But I am up here with a new good friend, a nice family — a new family. Getting my GED diploma. I just want to say thank y’all.”
A few minutes later a choir kicked in, their voices resounding in the sun-lit room.
“Victory is mine!” they sang. “Joy is mine!”
Almost on cue, Leyva tossed his cap in the air — not once, but twice.