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SMITHFIELD — Antoan Whidbee, a Smithfield attorney who lives in Clayton, ran into Malik Shepherd on the Friday before Christmas.
The 19-year-old Smithfield-Selma High School graduate told Whidbee he was transferring from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte to Barton College in nearby Wilson.
“My last memory of him was the smile he gave me in Walmart because he was so excited to be closer to home and going to school,” Whidbee said during a meeting last week in Smithfield.
But Shepherd, who played quarterback at SSS, never made it to Barton, though he had already packed his car for the trip, Whidbee said. He died Jan. 4, the victim of a gunshot wound.
“When I found out he had passed away, I was very upset by it,” said the attorney, who had mentored Shepherd in high school. “I sort of looked back and said, How did I fail this kid? What things could we have done to prevent this? I went through a period of almost self-blame.”
Then Whidbee got angry. “I got angry because I’m thinking, ‘Man, he was so happy to be home, and now he’s dead,’” Whidbee recalled. “So what good did it do him to be home? My anger was based out of the fact, Did home get him killed?”
Whidbee ultimately decided that the answer was no. “But when I talked to his mom and his dad, I said, ‘He’s just one of several kids who have their way, lost their life, something bad has happened to,’” he said. “What could we do to make difference?”
His answer, still in its infancy, is a group called “I’m Committed,” which aims, broadly, to provide programs and mentors for young people.
That group held its first meeting Jan. 27 in East Smithfield. Posters on either side of the speakers’ table laid out a pledge for group members:
• I commit to making a difference, to support, guide and be a role model.
• I commit to being consistent, to be a steady figure over time, to be persistent and to help another persevere,
• I commit to encouraging another by listening, by understanding, by fostering strengths and by showing empathy.
• I commit to building a mutual relationship, to enter the world of someone else, to hear about new dreams and challenges, to share my own stories and to respect the differences between us.
• I commit to asking for assistance when I need my own support, when the struggles of a child are bigger than I can handle, when I am unsure.
• I commit to recognizing that change often comes in small steps that barely leave footprints, that victories are often unseen or unspoken, and that obstacles will always be present.
• I commit to remaining sympathetic to the storms weathered, to the adversity faced and to the experiences that occurred long before this child entered my life.
• I commit to realizing that my actions carry new weight and responsibility, that my role can never be taken lightly, that my life will also change with this experience.
• I commit to being committed, understanding that time should not dash water onto the fire that sparked my pledge.
• I commit to a new day, a new vision for our community and new ways to handle challenges.
• I commit to effectuating positive change in the lives of our youth.
Whidbee said Shepherd’s parents told him they didn’t know how their son came to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. “When I talked to his parents, they talked about, ‘We did everything,’” including going to church and keeping tabs on their son’s comings and goings, Whidbee said. “In their minds, it was just an unfortunate circumstances.”
But perhaps it’s wrong to expect parents to meet all of a child’s needs, Whidbee said. “We came up with this idea to just reinvest back into the community to maybe fill some holes that even the best parents can’t plug,” he said of “I’m Committed.” “Let’s see what parents need.”
Marlon Lee, another “I’m Committed member, is dean of students at Clayton High School. “As an educator,” he said, “I’ve seen too many kids drop out of school. I’ve seen too many kids drop out of school. I’ve seen too many kids get suspended. I’ve seen too many kids get shot, get killed, in jail. It makes me mad. Now I need to make a difference. That’s why I’m committed. That’s why I’m part of this organization.”
In all, Whidbee said, 394 people “have committed to do something, whether it’s time, financing, mentoring kids.’” The group wants to hear their ideas before creating a more-formal committee structure to address the needs of the county’s young people, he said.
They will face challenges, Whidbee conceded, including “speaking the language of the kids that need help the most.”
“I’ll be honest,” he said, “I don’t speak their language any more.”
But first things first, Whidbee said. “Let’s see where we need to focus on and who can help,” he said.