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‘Sound of Us’ tells stories Northeast Ohioans want to tell — in their own voices.

A Cleveland teen was shot in the head and survived. How do she and her mother cope?

Makayla Barlow, left, and her mother, Natasha Lovelace, right, sat down for an interview in November 2023 to talk about how they're doing in the aftermath of Makayla being shot in the head in 2021.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Makayla Barlow, left, and her mother, Natasha Lovelace, right, want to help build empathy for survivors of gun violence.

The summer before her senior year, Makayla Barlow was driving herself to work for the first time after getting her driver's license. She was shot in the head, caught in what appeared to be crossfire as she drove through East Cleveland.

I first met her and her mother, Natasha Lovelace, while covering an anti-gun violence forum at Cleveland Metropolitan School District's East Professional Center. She’s had four brain surgeries as a result of the shooting, and has lingering problems with speaking, eyesight and brain function. But here she was, using her voice.

"I'm happy to be here, because I went to Campus International (High School) and I live in Cleveland and I want to make a change," she told the crowd, to applause.

But recovery is a long process after a traumatic incident like that, even outside the hours upon hours of physical therapy Makayla’s needed. That's true for both Makayla, now 19, and Natasha. Hundreds of people in Cleveland are shot but not killed each year, according to Cleveland Police Department statistics. Those crimes affect families for years to come, from medical expenses to physical disabilities and mental health challenges.

Mother Natasha Lovelace, just out of frame to the left, shows where the bullet went into her daughter's head.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Mother Natasha Lovelace, just out of frame to the left, shows where the bullet went into her daughter's head.

Learning to live with trauma

I met Makayla and Natasha at Natasha's friend's house in November 2023. They weren't far from their old home, in Cleveland's Wade Park neighborhood, where Natasha grew up. Seeing their old house isn't easy for Natasha; she had to give up her rent-to-own dream to keep pace with medical bills and lost the house. Makayla was in the hospital for more than four months and Natasha couldn’t work for some time after because she was taking care of her.

"It was hard to care for her in that state because she was just angry," Natasha said. "She couldn't speak; she had her breathing tube in. So it was a lot of middle fingers."

Natasha, a single mother of three, also ended her 18-year career in the U.S. Army in order to stay home and help Makayla.

Fragments of the bullet remain in Makayla's head. She experiences occasional seizure-like symptoms and can no longer drive due to problems with her vision. Natasha's two other children, Simon and Minnie, have also struggled to cope with what happened to their sister.

In the time since Makayla returned home from the hospital, the family has been working toward building a new life.

"Mental health is a thing that we have to consider and hers is very different now. It's hard to learn how to work with the difference, like her anxiety and her difference in emotion, anger, frustration," Natasha said. "So yeah, we're re-learning each other."

Part of that involves working through difficult emotions, a subject that arose when I asked them to take the mic and talk to each other.

"I started punching her," Makayla said. "She was just standing there, letting me punch her. Why?"

"Because I knew that, I knew how she felt, you know, and if anger was going to be released in any ways, I didn't mind her releasing it on me," Natasha responded.

From right to left, Natasha Lovelace, her son Simon Villanueva, her daughter Makayla Barlow, and her daughter Minnie Villanueva.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
From right to left, Natasha Lovelace, her son Simon Villanueva, her daughter Makayla Barlow, and her daughter Minnie Villanueva.

For Makayla, faith and meditation have been a refuge.

"[I like] using my crystals because I'm into crystals and meditating," she said. "I got closer with God. My faith had changed after the incident, because before the incident, I didn't really believe and like, I questioned his existence a lot."

Natasha said she’s just now coming to grips with it all.

"Even when I was at the hospital that day, I didn't really cry," she said. "So I think that was bad on my part because it kind of came all at once after."

It’s shaken her faith.

"It's just a struggle to recognize that horrible things like this do happen and they can happen to me," she said.

But Natasha said daily runs, counseling and speaking out about their experiences in the community are all helping her cope with what happened.

What happened when Makayla was shot?

Natasha said she believes the person who shot Makayla was trying to fire across the street at somebody else. An off-duty East Cleveland Police officer reported hearing two gunshots in the area, found Makayla slumped over the wheel of her car with a gunshot wound to the head, and another car fleeing the scene, according to the incident report provided by Natasha.

After Makayla was taken to the hospital, officers found a witness and obtained security footage of the incident from a nearby check cashing service. The footage showed a white, four-door sedan pull into the parking lot, and a man exiting the vehicle and running away on foot. The witness named a male suspect, but Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court records don't show anybody with that name ever being charged with a crime.

The case was initially assigned to Police Sgt. John Hartman, who was one of eight East Cleveland Police officers arraigned last year on charges ranging fromtampering with evidence to assault to dereliction of duty.

East Cleveland Police Sgt. Reginald Holcomb told Ideastream Public Media in early February that the case is still open and that they are pursuing "several leads."

Looking to the future

The past is informing bright new futures for both Natasha and Makayla. Natasha is now working toward a career in mental health, getting her master’s degree in psychology. She hopes to become a researcher, to work with veterans' mental health or both.

Makayla is as driven as ever. She’s holding down two jobs as she attends Hiram College. She wants to become a trauma nurse.

She also hasn’t given up on another dream.

"That's my goal right now, to make it to the Olympics still," she said. "I started running track when I was in 7th grade and made it to state two times and nationals three [times]."

Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Natasha Lovelace, left, laughs with her daughter, Makayla Barlow, right, during an interview in November 2023.

Her first time running competitively since the shooting was last December. She’s slower than she used to be, which is a big disappointment for her.

But to Natasha, just being able to compete is huge, considering doctors initially thought Makayla would need to be in a wheelchair. The shooting affected the entire left side of her body.

School is going well, too, but it's not without its own frustrations for Makayla, who was an honor student and earned straight A's in high school. She now needs some accommodations in college to allow her to use talk-to-text for assignments.

"I've had two seizure scares in college already," she said.

Natasha worries that Makayla may be overexerting herself, but Makayla said she likes keeping busy.

Makayla and her mom have also converted their pain into advocacy. They’ve been speaking out about their story, stopping by area high schools and other events.

"You look at the news and it's like, 'Oh, she got shot yesterday,' and then the next day, people move on with their lives," Natasha said. "You know, not understanding this changes the lives of victims for years, and their families and their friends."

Natasha said she felt a lack of support from her community in the months following the shooting. Few reached out to see how she and her family were doing.

By sharing their story, she said, she and Makayla hope to stop at least some violent crime. But they also hope to build empathy in the community for those affected by gun violence.

Corrected: February 13, 2024 at 1:22 PM EST
Fragments of the bullet remain in Makayla's head, not the full bullet as was initially reported.
Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.