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As homicides in Rochester rise, I was invited to a cookout in Brighton that sought to soothe survivors of gun violence.
It's Saturday in the summer. Blue skies, fresh-cut grass and the smell of charcoal on the grill are classic hallmarks of an afternoon barbecue.
What makes this barbecue different? Mostly everyone attending is meeting for the first time — strangers with spinal cord injuries bonding over survival.
Chris Hilderbrant is the executive director at the Rochester Spinal Association. Chris is a disability rights activist, policy strategist and wheelchair rugby player paralyzed after a diving accident that left him with a spinal cord injury at age 14.
Just over a year ago, Hilderbrant met Michael Patterson — a Rochester transplant originally from Philadelphia who was paralyzed at age 18 after being shot in his back.
Though their circumstances differ, Patterson and Hilderbrant, who met through a mutual friend, found common ground in their fight to have a decent quality of life despite their injuries.
For Patterson, high quality of life is more than overcoming physical barriers that create conflict because of his inability to walk. Mental health is paramount for the life he hopes to sustain in Rochester.
Soon after their meeting, Hilderbrant invited Patterson to a support group for those with spinal cord injuries. Though the group helped, Patterson found it hard to relate to people who didn't share his trauma of being shot.
Though Philadelphia and Rochester are two different cities, both towns have Black communities plagued by poverty, drugs and violence.
With his own experiences in mind, Michael suggested that Chris start a support group specifically for those who suffered spinal cord injuries due to inner-city gun violence. Chris Hilderbrant listened and sadly — he didn't have to look hard for local victims with similar plight to Patterson.
Survivors, not victims
Nicole Nabors is an army veteran. Nabors survived her time in the service without a scratch only to come home and get shot defending a friend under attack from her partner.
Porche Powell's boyfriend kicked her door down and shot her, while Elizabeth Washington was hit with a stray bullet just hanging outside in the neighborhood.
As I sat and talked with these residents over chicken wings and macaroni salad, I was hesitant to ask for more details on the circumstances of their injuries.
To my understanding, this gathering emphasized the term "survivor" over "victim." This Saturday in the summer was about reimagining life after adversity instead of letting that adversity define an entire life.
Though the intentions of the cookout were pure, nerves ruled the day as survivors were slow to open up dialogue amongst each other.
Eventually, those traditional summer aesthetics, blue skies, fresh-cut grass and the smell of charcoal on the grill brought normalcy to the party. Laughs and conversation followed.
I even got the group to come together for a photo.
As family members of the survivors helped clean the Pavilion and transport leftover food to vehicles, I patted Michael Patterson on the back and told him he did a good job. As a journalist, I was disappointed that I didn't get enough quotes for a potential story. Still, as Michael’s brother — I was proud to see him use his trauma to alleviate the pain of others, even if it was only for a Saturday in the summer.
Contact Robert Bell at: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @byrobbell & Instagram: @byrobbell
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