WILMINGTON — Kinwan Long peeked around the living room wall in his mother’s Wilmington apartment and waited patiently until she paused during her conversation.
“Excuse me, please, can I get something real quick,” the 7-year-old Wilmington boy said, his little finger extended toward the kitchen.
Tia Bennerman, 37, nodded silently, and Kinwan disappeared into the kitchen then quickly hurried back to the spot where he and his 4-year-old brother Ky’heim were playing.
“All my children are well mannered,” Bennerman said with wet eyes. “There were over 250 people at Jeffrey’s funeral. His pediatrician showed up.... She’s seen hundreds of kids, but she remembered my son. To me that shows he was special.”
June 20 marked one year since 17-year-old Jeffrey Henry was shot dead in a yard on Sixth Street. He was running with a bad crowd that night, Bennerman admits, “lost” in a gang lifestyle she’d tried to save him from.
“I know my son’s heart. He was battling within himself even. But the streets - the pull was too strong,” she said.
According to police, Jeffrey died in a gunbattle instigated by his friends. No one has been charged in his death.
Through her own investigation, Bennerman said, she learned the same.
Three months after he ran away from his mother’s home in Atlanta, emptied her savings of $750 and took a Greyhound bus back to the Port City where he was born and raised, Jeffrey was dead. Now, Bennerman is left to wade through the cycles of grief that so many other Wilmington mothers have suffered in the wake of gang violence. Wilmington Police Department numbers show that in 2013, seven of the nine murders had a gang connection - either the killings were prompted by a gang beef or the suspect or victim was identified as a gang member.
“Just when I think I can breathe, another mother loses her child,” Bennerman said. “When will it end?”
Bennerman gave birth to Jeffrey in Wilmington when she was 18.
She knew the streets, and she knew how to navigate them, she said. You have to learn to live within the environment you grow up in and Bennerman figured out how to survive as a single mother in a town where she said trouble lies at every turn. She even found some of it herself with a series of misdemeanor convictions in her 20s.
It’s easy now to see where she erred, she said. For the past year, she’s analyzed and over-analyzed where it all went wrong for her oldest child. It boils down to one glaring truth, Bennerman believes: Jeffrey had no positive male influences in his life.
He was in ninth grade when the gang violence began to worsen in Wilmington, and Bennerman said she could see Jeffrey was drawn to the lifestyle. Some of the friends he grew up with were claiming gang affiliation. Bennerman knew it was a matter of time before he was, too. The adult men she associated with also had less than savory reputations. She wanted to save Jeffrey from it.
She asked him where they should move and Jeffrey said Georgia. Bennerman knew no one there but decided on Atlanta.
“We went down there on a Monday, found a place by Tuesday, and Wednesday we was back here packing,” she said.
Gia Walker, who provided daycare for Jeffrey’s younger brothers in Decatur, Ga., outside Atlanta, said she could see something special in Jeffrey.
When Bennerman worked long hours, Walker invited the teen into the daycare and enlisted his help with the younger children at his mother’s request.
“He was a really loving boy. He was a making a huge difference with the after-school program. If any of the children had anger management problems, he could talk to them and calm them down,” Walker said. “He wasn’t a street person, but he was just drawn to that fast life. I used to talk to him all the time about how dangerous it was. I just felt like he was trying to change. But peer pressure...
“I think the best thing that we can do, especially as educators, is get people to work with these young boys and show them different circumstances and different things that they could be doing. The pull their friends have over them is just unreal. Something was pulling him back to Wilmington, something was pulling him back to that situation.”
According to the N.C. Criminal Justice Analysis Center, of the more than 13,000 validated gang members in the state, 66 percent are ages 16 to 25 and 70 percent are black. According to N.C. Gang Net, 42 verified gangs operate in the New Hanover County/Wilmington area.
The odds were stacked against Jeffrey - and all the kids like him.
When Bennerman ended her relationship with Ky’heim and Kinwan’s father, Jeffrey, who was 16 at the time, felt obligated to be a father to the boys.
“I was a struggling single mother. I gave my son everything that I could possibly provide for him and not just with material things, but with love and guidance - but it wasn’t what he was looking for from me. He told me, ‘Mom, you were the best mother ever, but you can’t teach me to be a man,’ and I couldn’t, I was lost,” she said. “So I called all kind of people, I went to all kind of resources. I took him to therapy, I took him to psychiatrists, I got him mentors.
“I was screaming for help, ‘Somebody please help me, I don’t know what to do to save my son.’ Because I saw the cross in him where he knew right, but also there was so much to pull him that way.”
Children from homes without fathers are at a greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, suicide, poor educational performance, teen pregnancy, and criminality, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More than 60 percent of the lease holders in public housing in Wilmington are single mothers.
In his 2008 Father’s Day address, President Barack Obama, the product of a single-mother household, addressed fatherless families.
“Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation. They are teachers and coaches. They are mentors and role models. They are examples of success and the men who constantly push us toward it,” Obama said. “But if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing - missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”
Bennerman believes Jeffrey felt the weight of that absence and wanted to be a man for his younger brothers.
“Jeffrey went out there with intentions to come back and teach his brothers,” she said. “He didn’t know what it meant to be a man, and I didn’t have one to teach him. So he had to find it. He wasn’t a bad person, he just didn’t understand life.”
Annie Anthony, director of the Cape Fear Volunteer Center/Big Buddy Program, said the majority of volunteers for the 75 boys and 75 girls in her program are women.
“To be blunt, the black men are not stepping up to volunteer as much. To get a black mentor is gold, because that’s what those moms really want for their boys is to see a black man who is successful and someone for the boys to model the way they should walk in the world,” she said. “We try to match up the adult mentor with the children that have like commonalities. We want them to be able to spend time together so that gap (left by their fathers) can be filled, because if not, the gangs fill it.”
Anthony said one of the major problems they see once they get a mentor on board is keeping the mentor.
“The thing that hurts the kids is when people commit to them and then relinquish their commitment early. The mentors need to be willing to stay six months to a year. Otherwise, they are doing what the kids already know. Everyone walks out on them. Everyone leaves them. These kids need commitment, they don’t need someone to spend money on them, but they need them to spend time.”
Anthony believes mentoring programs are more successful as prevention, but she doesn’t discourage mothers from enrolling their children even in the late stages of childhood.
“I feel like we’re less successful when it comes to the intervention stage,” she said. Boys will find male role models, and if gang members are who they see, that’s what they’ll aspire to be.
“Start the boys when they’re 5 years old. Before the trouble starts,” she said. “If your child is on the free lunch program (often the case in single-parent households), the parents should know there are other programs that can benefit them, too.”
When Jeffrey ran away on March 27, 2013, Bennerman was gripped by fear. It only increased when she found out he was back in Wilmington. She knew he was mixed up in the gangs here.
“I can remember talking to him just before he passed and I said, ‘Jeff, do you want to die out there in them streets?’ And he said, ‘Mom, everyone got to die one day.’ I said, ‘Son, just pray, please tell me that you pray.’ And he said ‘Mom, believe it or not, I pray more now that I’m not in the house with you than I did when I was.’”
Jeffrey had only three months of freedom before a bullet ended his life. His death rocked Bennerman to the core. A woman of strong faith, she finds comfort in knowing he’s protected by God now and that his actions can’t hurt someone else’s child.
“So yes, he was in a gang, I accept that for what it is. I accept that was the choice he made because of some of the choices I made, because had I put positive men in his life, maybe I could have shown him better. I didn’t know these things that I know now,” she said.
Her son should have graduated from high school this year. When a friend of his gave her a 2014 tassel like Jeffrey would have worn on his graduation cap, Bennerman saw it as a sign. She enrolled in classes and has passed three of the four tests needed to get her GED. Her math exam should be done by August.
“One of us will graduate this year,” she said with a smile. “I want to make Jeffrey proud.”
She also attended the New Hanover County District Attorney’s expungement clinic June 17 and took the steps to clear her misdemeanor criminal record. She sees these actions as a way to better her life for the boys she still has to raise. They are her driving force now. When her lease is up in March, she’ll return to Georgia, she said.
Bennerman pointed to Kinwan and Ky’heim in their matching crisp white T-shirts and jeans shorts. Their wide innocent eyes would see a side of life that Bennerman said she couldn’t find in the inner city of Wilmington.
“These two are different. I can make better choices for them than I made for Jeff because I saw the mistakes and what led to Jeff being lost,” she said. “These two have no idea of things that go on in that street life, I don’t expose them to it, I don’t allow them to see it. Now I know I can keep my kids from it.
“I feel like Jeffrey sacrificed his life to open my eyes. Maybe sharing my story can help someone else see.”