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Victims teach kids about toll of violence — but money is drying up

Demetrius Harris 32 shooting victim who was speaker for In My Shoes lauded program help reduce gun violence spoke outside

Demetrius Harris, 32, a shooting victim who was a speaker for In My Shoes, a lauded program to help reduce gun violence, spoke outside his south side home. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 9, 2013 6:03AM

Urinating through catheters. The necessity of Viagra. The reality of not being able to dress yourself or get out of bed without another adult lifting you.

Since 1997, nearly 60,000 kids in Chicago’s most violence-ridden neighborhoods have heard these bleak stories of daily life told by men paralyzed by gunshots and beatings.

The “In My Shoes” program from Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital sent victims of violence with the most severe injuries into classrooms, juvenile detention centers and parole offices to talk about life after a violent, often gun-related crime.

But now, at a time when Chicago’s murder rate earns the city unwanted international attention, the federal money that In My Shoes relied on is gone and the program is barely operational.

It has been hailed as an effective, low-cost attempt to prevent violence instead of dealing with the expensive after-effects, such as health care for gunshot injuries or incarceration.

“It would be different if Cornel West or Jesse Jackson came in and said, ‘Boys, be good,’ ” said Demetrius Harris, 32, who uses a wheelchair because he was shot in the spine and paralyzed from the waist down during a gang initiation in 2003. “But they see someone like me, from the South Side of Chicago, and they say this can happen to me. That really registers.”

No topic was off-limits as urban youths were presented with the stark reality of life from injured men who had once been affiliated with gangs or drugs and were forced to adjust to life in a body with new, frustrating limits.

“Every day on the news I see kids getting killed — every day,” said Maurice Harris, 45, who is paralyzed on his right side after being beaten in a gang-related attack in Chicago on Christmas Eve 2000. He has been part of In My Shoes since 2001.

“It touches these kids’ hearts when they know the consequences of these streets out here,” he said. “They have seen people get shot, but they’ve never seen the results of being in a wheelchair.”

During the program’s busiest periods, Maurice Harris (no relation to Demetrius Harris) was speaking three times a week. Now, at most, he’ll do two presentations a month becaues the grant that paid for the program dried up.

In My Shoes is run through Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, part of Sinai Health System. Sinai spokeswoman Dianne Hunter confirmed that the program lost its major federal funding but declined to give specifics, such as who funded the program or the amounts of the grants. Two In My Shoes program leaders who work at Schwab declined to speak about the lost grants, saying through Hunter they did not want to potentially jeopardize future funding.

The coordinator of one source of minor funding for In My Shoes said she wanted to fund the program but the money just isn’t there.

“They have been an amazing partner of ours since the inception of Project Safe Neighborhoods,” said Kim Nerheim, the law-enforcement coordinator for Project Safe Neighborhoods, a gun-violence prevention effort through the U.S. attorney’s office of Northern Illinois and a number of other federal and local agencies, including the Chicago Police Department.

“Funding from Congress is nonexistent,” for Project Safe neighborhoods, she said.

Beyond In My Shoes’ impact on young adults, the men participating as speakers were able to find meaningful part-time work despite their disabilities. Maurice Harris said he contemplated suicide after emerging from a three-month coma and learned that he was paralyzed.

“This makes me respect life more, respect people more,” he said. “This situation made me have love for people.”

The speakers weren’t getting rich off the program — Demetrius Harris said he was paid $50 per session. He was invited to participate in the program after he was treated for his spinal cord injury at Schwab. A high school dropout who has since gotten his diploma, he couldn’t imagine himself as a professional public speaker. But his paralysis meant he could no longer work the physical jobs he was working before he was shot. He was inspired by the staffers at Schwab who use wheelchairs.

“I saw guys in wheelchairs, guys who had cars, jobs, a suit and tie,” he said in front of his home near 91st and Marshfield. “When I come around here the guys in wheelchairs are like winos and dope fiends.”

On his first few speaking engagements, he braced for the worst.

“I expected kids to throw things at me and yell, ‘Get out of the room, old man,’ ” he said. Instead, to his surprise, “They pay attention.”

Behind the violence are “people who have been scarred at a young age” who are desperate to connect to someone,” Demetrius Harris said.

“No one from a stable family does this,” he said of street violence. “You don’t see Rahm Emanuel’s kids stand at the liquor store.”

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