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Changed Forever: Healing After Gun Violence

Serenity Capers and her son Rashard Jr. sit outside their home waiting for the school bus.
Serenity Capers and her son Rashard Jr. sit outside their home waiting for the school bus.

Serenity Capers, 37, walked the few blocks from her North Portland home to Woodlawn High School. It was two weeks into Oregon’s statewide coronavirus lockdown, and Capers had recently bought herself a new pair of roller skates. She was taking her son Rashard Johnson Jr., 16, to the schoolyard to try them out.

She was determined to celebrate. It was the 16th anniversary of a shooting that almost killed her, her boyfriend and Rashard Jr., their then-unborn son.

Early that morning in 2003, Capers’ boyfriend was dropping her off at home after studying at his house.

“It happened so fast,” she said. “Rashard Sr. didn’t even have enough time to put the car in park. He pulled over to the side behind my sister’s car in front of our house, and they pulled up on the side of us and they just started shooting.”

Rashard Johnson Sr. was shot multiple times but survived. Serenity Capers, five months pregnant, was shot in the stomach. Her first memory after the shooting was waking up in the hospital, seeing her mom asleep in a chair next to the bed, and then talking to the doctors.

“The first thing they did tell me is, ‘Hey, you’re still pregnant, your baby survived,’ ” she said. “I was so happy. I think it was the most remarkable moment outside of giving birth.”

Serenity Capers, 37, stands for a portrait on August 26, 2019 in her Northeast Portland living room. Capers was shot in the stomach in 2003 when she was five months pregnant.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity's son, Rashard Jr., who friends and family call Pooh, smiles for a portrait on August 26, 2019 in Portland Oregon. Pooh was injured in utero by gun violence and born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity gives Pooh medicine before a doctor's appointment on February 11, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. Serenity, her mom Laura, and sister Trinity all help take care of Pooh.

Jonathan Levinson, / OPB

Serenity brushes Pooh's teeth before he leaves for school on November 13, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. Being pregnant with Pooh when she was shot saved her life. The baby had pushed her vital organs higher up in her body, out of the bulletÕs path.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity carries Pooh to their car on August 26, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. Pooh canÕt talk and requires a wheelchair to get around, but his limitations are physical. He understands everything, can answer yes or no questions.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Pooh rides to school with other students on November 13, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. He will graduate high school this year.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Pooh's teacher, Brielle Meskin, helps set up an iPad with adaptive technology that Pooh can control with his eyes.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Everyday in class Pooh spends time in a device that lets him stand up to help stretch his muscles. Serenity says all his muscles are tight, as if it was a permanent charley horse.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Pooh and his class take a field trip to a nearby grocery store to buy ingredients for a meal they plan to cook in class on November 13, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity and Pooh sit outside their home on November 13, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. Serenity says his love for fashion reminds her that heÕs still a boy, a normal child.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity and Pooh look at papers from his school about signing up for the basketball team on November 13, 2009 in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity and Pooh read a menu while out to lunch together on March 1, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity and Pooh go to a movie with Deron Crain, an ex-boyfriend who has helped co-parent Pooh on March 1, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. Pooh is a boisterous, mischievous and perpetually happy teenager.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity and Pooh go to a movie with Deron Crain, an ex-boyfriend who has helped co-parent Pooh on March 1, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. Pooh is a boisterous, mischievous and perpetually happy teenager.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity puts on makeup for a rare night out with friends on September 20, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. She says being Black with a special needs child often leaves her feeling socially isolated.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity gets her handgun ready before she goes out to meet friends on September 20, 2019 in Portland Oregon. Over the years a number of people close to her have also been impacted by gun violence and Serenity says since carrying a handgun she feels less scared being out.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity takes a selfie with friends on September 20, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. Since being shot and having her son 16 years ago, Serenity says it has been difficult to have a social life and at times feels very isolated.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity and her sister Trinity help Pooh get out of the car and into his chair on August 1, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. Trinity was there the night Serenity was shot and Serenity says she has been like a second mom to Pooh.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity and Pooh sit in a barber shop talking with friends on August 1, 2019 in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Pooh gets a haircut on August 1, 2019 in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity ties Pooh's shoes on August 1, 2019 in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity and Pooh leave after getting Pooh's haircut on August 1, 2019 in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity and Pooh eat french fries together on July 30, 2019 in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity and Pooh get ready for a doctor's appointment on February 11, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. Pooh has a pump under his skin that releases small doses of muscle relaxer and he was going to the doctor to get it refilled.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Pooh sits in a doctor's appointment on August 12, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. Pooh was getting ready for a surgery to cut muscles in his arms allowing him to straighten them and hopefully reduce pain.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity looks on as a nurse refills a pump under Pooh's skin that releases small doses of muscles relaxer on February 11, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

A nurse draws a happy face on a bandaid after she refilled a pump under PoohÕs skin that releases small doses of muscles relaxer on February 11, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Serenity and Pooh roller skate on the 16th anniversary of the shooting that almost killed her, her boyfriend and Pooh, who at the time had not yet been born.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

In early 2003, the year Capers was shot, shootings in Portland were trending up. By March of that year, according to the Portland Tribune, the city was on pace to eclipse the previous year’s 241 shootings, itself a dramatic increase from 2001’s 15-year low of 188 shootings.

Today, gun violence is increasing nationwide. In July and August, shootings increased more than 180% in Portland compared to the same time last year. In Chicago, they’ve gone up about 50%. And by July, Kansas City had the same amount of shootings as all of 2019.

Most gun violence in the U.S. isn’t in mass shootings. It’s in isolated incidents like Capers’ case, which taken together form a catastrophic picture. Shootings are nearly always perpetrated by men and target men, often leaving widows and moms to absorb the ramifications. Whether a shooting results in a death, an injury, or traumatized survivors and witnesses, each of these data points represents lives changed forever.

In Capers’ case, being pregnant saved her life. The baby had pushed her vital organs higher up in her body, out of the bullet’s path. But in the coming weeks, Rashard Jr. wasn’t moving as much as he should have been. Doctors said that he had stopped growing and told her they saw hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the baby’s brain.

Doctors told Serenity her baby would have brain damage and suggested she consider terminating the pregnancy. She was only 20. Doctors urged she could get pregnant again in a few months.

“I was like, ‘This is my baby, we’re rocking with it,’ ” Capers said. “I had lost a baby before him, so he was my third pregnancy. And so I was just like … this one’s gonna survive. We’re having this baby.”

Serenity and Pooh roller skate on the 16th anniversary of the shooting that almost killed her, her boyfriend and Pooh, who at the time had not yet been born.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Life After Gun Violence

On that April afternoon at Woodlawn High School, Serenity put on her new roller skates, grabbed ahold of Rashard Jr.’s wheelchair, and raced around the school yard with him, laughing.

Rashard Jr., whom friends and family call Pooh, was born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy.

“Imagine a charley horse in your leg, that’s his entire body the whole time,” Capers said. “And the older he gets, the tighter he gets.”

Pooh can’t talk and requires a wheelchair to get around, but his limitations are physical. He understands everything, can answer yes or no questions, and in school, he has adaptive technology for more complex communication. He’s also a boisterous, mischievous and perpetually happy teenager.

“He’s into cologne. He loves bowties and ties. He’s a fashionista. Everything that’s dapper is him. He’s like a boy me,” Capers said. “It’s so funny, but it’s cool cause it brings me back to: He’s still a boy. He’s still a normal child.”

Pooh’s teacher, Brielle Meskin, helps set up an iPad with adaptive technology that Pooh can control with his eyes.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Facing Racism

Of U.S. cities with a population over 500,000, Portland is the whitest, with 71% of its residents identifying as such, according to census data. Being Black in such a white city only compounds the already formidable challenges of finding community as a gun violence survivor and having a child with special needs.

“When you do find another parent that’s Black with a special needs child, we’re so busy because a lot of times we don’t have spouses,” Capers said, adding she often feels isolated. “I’m a part of a Facebook group of parents with special needs. Even getting them to socialize [is hard], because they have spouses, they have help, they have resources, homes. I’m grinding to put food on the table, to go to work every day, to manage his appointments, to be a business owner.”

Serenity puts on makeup for a rare night out with friends on September 20, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. She says being Black with a special needs child often leaves her feeling socially isolated.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

And, Capers said, she has experienced shocking racism.

Because of the shooting, she only gained two pounds during her pregnancy. A couple of months before Pooh was born, a white woman approached her in the grocery store and expressed concern that she wasn’t taking care of herself and was too frail to be pregnant. Later in life at a seminar for parents with special needs children, someone expressed surprise she was there and told her they thought Black people “just throw y’all’s kids away.”

“Would that be said to somebody else?” Capers asked.

Capers also points to a lack of resources and opportunity in the Black community. She is part of a long line of Black women who grind against systemic hurdles to feed their families. This month, she got a promotion at work and plans to move out of her mom’s house where she and Pooh have lived for years. Pooh will turn 18 soon and has big dreams. He wants a job and to wear a suit everyday, she said.

Capers said she wants to make that happen for him. She wants to be able to take care of her mom and to make sure Pooh never has to worry about taking care of her.

“That’s what we do,” she said. “Who would I be if I didn’t step up?”

Serenity looks on as a nurse refills a pump under Pooh’s skin that releases small doses of muscles relaxer on February 11, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

More Than A Statistic

Capers and Pooh spent this past Christmas with an ex-boyfriend who helped co-parent Pooh. Multiple generations wore their pajamas and came together in his Gresham apartment for an enormous home cooked meal.

And gifts.

Wearing an even bigger smile than normal, Pooh sat in his chair, the tray piled high with presents. One by one, he opened astronaut pajamas, bluetooth headphones and – ever the fashionista – two pairs of sneakers.

“I have so many wonderful moments in my day to day life,” Capers said. “I never want somebody to look at me and be like, ‘Oh, she’s just a girl from the hood who got hit who lives in poverty every day.’ It’s bigger than that.”

As shootings surge in Portland, the trauma of gun violence continues to weave itself into the community and reverberate across generations. Capers’ biological father was shot and killed when she was a child. Two years ago, her cousin and her cousin’s young son were both shot. Her son lost an eye in that shooting. And this summer, that same ex-boyfriend who helped raise Pooh, Deron Crain, was shot and killed.

After 16 years of grappling with the trauma of gun violence, Capers said she thinks addressing mental health is the key to stopping shootings in her community.

“Trauma rewires your brain and you wonder why you got all these people flipping out,” she said. “It’s the result of trauma and mental health. So if we address the mental health piece, we could see healing within the community.”

Statistics for gun violence may be up in Portland and other places across the country, but Capers is well aware those numbers are a flattened picture of a persistent problem. As city and law enforcement officials try to find ways to interrupt cycles of violence, each day more people are set on a path like Capers’ — or worse.

“That could have gone way different,” Capers said, thinking back to the night she was shot. “My whole family made it. That’s not everybody’s story.”

Serenity’s son, Rashard Jr., who friends and family call Pooh, smiles for a portrait on August 26, 2019 in Portland Oregon. Pooh was injured in utero by gun violence and born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

Copyright 2020 Guns and America. To see more, visit Guns and America.

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