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Mihalopoulos: Honoring King by promising teens, ‘We’ve got your backs’

Isaac Monroe speaks with neighborhood teens at his home in Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood, during a party to celebrate Martin Luther King day, January 18, 2016. | James Foster / For Sun-Times Media

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Isaac Monroe spent this Martin Luther King Day keeping a promise he made last year, after an innocent 14-year-old boy he didn’t know was shot and killed in his backyard.

Monroe’s elegant, red-brick home in North Kenwood was the setting Monday for a casual gathering of about 30 friends of slain high school freshman Tyjuan Poindexter and other neighbors.

Before inviting the guests to fill up on bowls of homemade chili, Monroe gathered them in a circle in the living room and quickly explained why he had invited them into his home.

“Even though, of course, we’re celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday, my primary purpose was to honor another fallen warrior, Tyjuan Poindexter,” said Monroe, a 64-year-old labor union official.

But Monroe then said he and the other adults in the room also had another reason for throwing the party.

They wanted to let the young people there to know they remain committed to them as they continue growing up in the neighborhood.

OPINION

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Police say Tyjuan and his friends were the blameless targets of a drive-by shooting on the evening of Sept. 19. The children, who had been walking toward Kennicott Park to play basketball, sought safety through Monroe’s open driveway gate.

Some of the kids got away unharmed. One friend of Tyjuan’s was shot in the legs and seriously wounded.

And one of the 32 bullets that were fired toward the house struck Tyjuan in the head. Monroe and a park district employee ran into the backyard after hearing the gunfire. They found the high school freshman with his legs resting on the driveway and his head bleeding on the lawn.

In this column last week, I told you how Monroe dug up a patch of grass after finding he was unable to hose away the blood that had pooled there.

After Tyjuan’s death, the sadly familiar scene of a makeshift memorial — handwritten signs, balloons, flowers — sprouted up in Monroe’s yard and along the wrought-iron fence.

Monroe says he vowed to himself that the death would only be the beginning of a long-term connection with the teens of the neighborhood and their families.

“We didn’t forget about you when all the hoopla died down,” Monroe told the young boys and girls at his house on Monday evening. “We’re still concerned about you as a community.”

Gesturing toward the adults around the room, he added, “We want to make this a safe community for you. I just want you to know we’ve got your backs as best we can.”

The other grown-ups at the party included the mother of Tyjuan’s friend who was shot in the legs in September but survived. She and the boy did not want to be identified in the media because police have not arrested anybody involved in the crime.

Still, the boy’s mother said she felt great support from Monroe and other neighbors she got to know only after bullets shattered her son’s bones in three places.

It was a couple months before the boy was well enough to go back to school. As he recuperated, neighbors brought food to the family several times a week.

“This has become my second family,” the boy’s mother said. “They text, they call. We had more help from strangers than from people we know.”

Isaac Monroe speaks with neighborhood teens at his home in Chicago’s Kenwood neighborhood, during a party to celebrate Martin Luther King day, January 18, 2016. | James Foster / For Sun-Times Media

Also among the families at Monroe’s party Monday were people with small, pre-teen kids who moved into the row houses down the block in recent years.

Brock Brockway, a 30-year-old chemical engineer and Michigan native who has lived in North Kenwood since 2011, said his wife was home with their three kids when she called and told him about the shooting in September.

“It’s horrible something like this happened here, but we’re Christians and maybe this is God’s way to tell us to build relationships with our neighbors and not just hide from other people living in the city,” Brockway said. “This is kind of, sort of scary, but we’re not terrified or trying to move out.”

The teens at the party on Monday said they had not known Monroe before Tyjuan was murdered. Since then, he and many of the other adults in the neighborhood check on the teens often and come to their ball games to cheer them on, said Denisia Bell, 14.

“We witnessed this at a very young age,” she said. “Everything we do now, we do in memory of Tyjuan.”

Tyjuan Poindexter. Supplied Photo.

Outside Monroe’s home, which was built in 1888 and renovated about 20 years ago, there’s little sign left of the tragedy that occurred nearly four months ago. A small patch of dirt remains where Monroe dug up the grass and planted mums where Tyjuan’s head fell.

Monroe told the neighborhood kids on Monday they are always welcome to knock on his door if they have any problem, that the adults are “all here to be mentors for you.”

“It just breaks my heart that our young people cannot feel safe to be young people, to have fun, to enjoy your lives without looking over your shoulder all the time,” he said.

Monroe and some of the other men hope to gather the teenage boys regularly. Those meetings should create a comfortable space for the young people to express their feelings and learn how to set high goals for their futures, he said.

Monday’s gathering was a good start.

“To me, this is the epitome of what King was here for,” Monroe said.

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