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You Can Go Through Horrible Things, But You Can Shine, Too: Wilkinsburg One Year Later

Franklin Avenue in Wilkinsburg is a mostly uneventful place these days.

“It’s been quiet,” said Jackie Pendleton, who’s lived in the borough northeast of Pittsburgh for 34 years. “It’s been quiet since that incident took place down the street.”

The “incident” was an ambush-style backyard shooting that left five adults, including a pregnant woman, dead on March 9, 2016.

About 15 partygoers were in the fenced backyard of 1304 Franklin Avenue for a cookout when one man slipped through the back, blasting at least 18 shots from a .40-caliber handgun. Guests tried to run inside through the home’s rear porch where a second gunman fired 30 shots from a semi-automatic rifle from five feet away.

Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
The house at 1304 Franklin Avenue as seen on Thursday, March 2, 2016.

Police say Robert Thomas, now 28, and Cheron Shelton, now 30, corresponded 45 times in the hours leading up to the shooting, which investigators believe was retribution for the 2013 murder of Shelton’s best friend, Calvin Doswell

The slain victims include Brittany Powell, 27,who was renting the home and living there with her child, and her siblings, Jerry Shelton, 35, and Chanetta Powell, 25, who was eight months pregnant at the time. The siblings' cousin, Tina Shelton, 37, and their friend, Shada Mahone, 26, were also killed. Three others were wounded, including the alleged target of the attack, Lamont Powell.

Shelton and Thomas are in the Allegheny County Jail awaiting trial. Neither man hails from Wilkinsburg.

“It was just so surreal,” Pendleton said. “I don’t know, I just kind of felt numb for a long time after that.”

Violence prevention organizer George Spencer, who lives just a few blocks from the site of the shooting, said Pendleton wasn’t the only neighbor left stunned.

In the weeks that followed, Spencer said he saw lots of support for the community, like big peace rallies, memorials and church services. But when he looked closer, he realized the people participating weren’t his neighbors. Local residents weren’t talking about what happened, and they weren’t seeking help. They just hunkered down.

Credit Virginia Alvino Young
Virginia Alvino Young
George Spencer, who volunteers with MAD DADS, a community anti-violence group, stands outside of the now-closed Johnston Elementary School in Wilkinsburgh.

“So that’s when we began to turn our attention to a more individualized house-to-house, ‘Hi, how you doin? Is there anything you need? Perhaps you’re aware of mental health assistance if you’re having a hard time,’” he said.

People didn’t know if that type of mass shooting was going to be a trend or if something larger was happening in the neighborhood, he said. And they still don’t really talk about it.

“I think there was a point that as the dust settled, it was a horrible, isolated incident,” he said. “It could happen anywhere, as long as you got the dynamics, and it’s still murky for me.”

A history of violence

Wilkinsburg has seen its share of tragedy.

Sitting on the steps of the now shuttered Wilkinsburg High School, Sarah Jackson, 22, ran out of fingers counting the number of friends she’s lost to gun violence or suicide.

“I always go into like a state of shock,” Jackson said. “It’s always like, ‘I can’t believe it was this person right now.’ And then the normal things that happen when you grieve, you cry. I’m a writer so I write. I might channel that, not aggression, but those feelings into a piece of art to say, ‘OK, this person might be gone, but you’re forever in my memory, because you inspired this piece of art from me.’”

Her friend Josh Horton, 23, also expresses his feelings through art. He raps about parties and females, but also about really personal experiences, to share them with what he hopes is a broad audience.

“A lot of people live in suburban areas,” he said. “They don’t really live out here and go through a lot of the stuff we go through.”

Horton attributes his resilience to his faith.

“When I think about people, death occurring in the neighborhood, I just think they’re not here. They don’t have to deal with this anymore,” Horton said. “They’re just in a better peace of mind. You don’t have to deal with any more violence, any more tears, any more pain. They’re just at peace.”

Bridging communities

Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Pastor Janet Hellner-Burris stands outside of the Christian Church of Wilkinsburg on Wallace Avenue.

Across the street from the closed high school is the Christian Church of Wilkinsburg and its longtime pastor, Rev. Janet Hellner-Burris, who coordinates the Sanctuary Project, a coalition of organizations that supports Wilkinsburg. She said that an unexpected partnership emerged after the shooting last year – Muslim leaders in the neighborhood came to support and pray with the victims’ families.

“And so this tragedy, God has used it to build a bridge between the Christian and Muslim community,” she said.

Collectively, they were able to move forward in a positive way out of that tragedy, leading volunteer efforts to board up abandoned properties and clear overgrowth on Franklin Avenue. A lot of neighbors came out, too.

Hellner-Burris said she knows that the roughly 2-square-mile borough has a nefarious reputation, but said she feels just as safe there as any other place in Pittsburgh. Allegheny County records show Wilkinsburg had seven homicides in 2015 and six in 2014.

The vigils didn’t stop days after five people and an unborn child were murdered, Hellner-Burris said.

“Whereas sometimes, and understandably so, the media moves on to the next story. We don’t move on,” she said. “We don’t forget in the church community. We stay with the people, and that can’t be underestimated, the power of saying, ‘I will walk with you through this.’”

She said Wilkinsburg residents experience a lot of other stressors that compound their tragedy, like finding housing or the high school closing. Hellner-Burris knows how long healing can take; a member of her immediate family was also murdered.

“So I get the part that maybe right away you don’t want help, and you’re not gonna ask for help,” she said. “But six months down the road, two years. It’s now been five years for (my family). You may realize you do need help. That this is why I’m always tired, this is why I’m always depressed, whatever the issue might be.”

An isolating experience

Parish social service minister Josie Bryant manages a food bank, counseling services and a rotating host of volunteers at St. James Catholic Church off Franklin. She’s lived in Wilkinsburg most of her life.

Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
St. James Catholic Church social service minister Josie Bryant in the church's food pantry, which she manages along with counseling services.

“And then if you look at my niece and nephews, fourth generation in Wilkinsburg, dealing with the same bullshit – violence,” she said.

Her greatest trauma came seven years ago involving a family she supported through work. 

“One of their children that I’d advocated and supported shot my son in the back three times,” she said.

The mass shooting last year was just a few blocks from where her son was killed.

“There are so many lives lost in that corridor over a period of, I would say, 20 years since the crack epidemic,” she said. “Now we have a heroin epidemic.”

She said her son’s murder was an incredibly isolating experience.

“So for someone to come to me and say, ‘Go to grief counseling now,’ it’s like, I can barely babble the part going into counseling,” she said. “As long as I’m getting my kids together – having to move – all these transitions they’ve never had before. So self-care is not always the first thing on your mind. Family care is the most critical thing.”

Eventually she did seek support, and has received counseling on and off over the years. But her kids, ages 23, 21 and 12, come first. They’re doing well in school, but Bryant said she also has to talk to them about not being vengeful and worries about outside influence.

“And this is what people don’t understand,” she said. “I’m at home being the peacemaker. They’re out in the world. They got hell raisers. I gotta draw them back in like, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ I’ve never raised my kids to be that way.”

Economic development is something that can curb the violence and break the cycle, Bryant said.

Pendleton agreed. Franklin Avenue is changing, she said. There are more renters now and fewer kids running around. Jackson said it’s up to them to engage those who are left – to get the next generation active in and proud of their community.

To show people, Jackson said, "Yes, you can come from this environment. Yes, you can go through these horrible things, but you can also shine, too.”