Last Chance High

After Eighth Student is Killed, Community Mentor Reflects on Chicago Violence

Coach Williams mentored young Melvin James Jr., as seen in VICELAND's 'Last Chance High'.

by Kastalia Medrano
Sep 19 2017, 6:31pm

Image via VICELAND

The latest episode of Last Chance High, the series that documents the experiences of youth in Chicago, airs Tuesdays on VICELAND.

A little after 5 p.m. on September 5th, 14-year-old Melvin James Jr. was shot in the leg and abdomen a few blocks from his home in South Chicago. He was taken to a nearby children's hospital, where he died at 2 a.m. on September 6th. Melvin was a former student of the now-shuttered Moses Montefiore Academy, a school for high-risk youth on Chicago's West Side. According to the Chicago Sun-Times' Homicide Watch, police said the shooting was gang-related. Melvin's family said he had never been in any gang, and that local gang members had been harassing him.

Murders like this -- where the victim is a young black man in a violent neighborhood -- barely make the news, so it becomes easier to blur them as faceless statistics. But if you've watched Last Chance High, then you will not find Melvin faceless. You can see him in Episode 5, with Coach Williams holding his shoulder and telling him he'd lead the basketball team next year.

Coach Williams was -- and remains -- among the most beloved figures to come out of Montefiore. When he was laid off, and when the school closed, he became a mentor without any kids. And without Montefiore as a haven, the kids he was able to stay in touch with were scattered and without protection. By Williams' count, Melvin was the eighth Montefiore alum killed in the two years since the school closed.

VICE Impact previously spoke to Williams over the summer, when he first began trying to crowdfund his son's heart surgery. Yesterday we spoke again, to help him make his voice heard as he remembered Melvin, and the importance of places like Montefiore for so many kids like him.

Check out more videos from VICE:

VICE Impact: You met Melvin when he was 11 or 12 -- did he start off playing basketball for you?

Williams: He was my third baseman. He could throw the ball from third to first like it was nothing. He wanted to play basketball, but that's where he had his problems. But when we took him to softball, the way he play third, he could throw a ball from third to first like, 'Oh my god, baby baby.' Couldn't nothing get past him on third.

If we was playing basketball and he was mad because he didn't do something he was supposed to do, I just told him, I said, "Dude, you mine, next year you my number one."

He was quiet. He loved to eat, though, he loved sweets. He'd smile when he got on the bus because teachers would give him some candy or something sweet. He was one of my stars, that's all I know.

Somebody, they called me and said, "Your boy's gone." I said what y'all talking about? The security guards called me and said, 'Your boy's gone." Another coach called me and said it was Melvin, and when I saw who it was, I lost it.

I tried to find out when the funeral was but I couldn't find out. I don't know what happened. I do not know. I just know somebody called me and told me he was killed. I'm trying to find out. All I know is my boy gone. Another one of my people, another one of my kids … that was another year we could have kept them in there, we could have kept them safe.

And Montefiore closing unexpectedly left them exposed and on their own?

If I'd had him another year, I mean we were planning on a next year, but there wasn't no next year. When I was holding him I'd say, "Man, next year you gonna be better, you gonna be better.' But we didn't have the next year. We didn't know it was gonna close.

Every time we don't have our kids with us, something happens. Every time, something happens. And we told them, they need to stay with us, they need to stay close to us, but I mean, every time. When they not protected they do stuff, or stuff happens-- when we were in Montefiore we could protect them.

I can't take much more of this, I tell you I can't take much more.

I don't know what to do now I can't help no kids, ain't got no kids to help. I don't know what to do no more, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. Now I just help my son, trying to keep my son. He's doing better, with the heart transplant. Medicine costs two arms and two legs, and he has to go back to the hospital and do something just about every other week.

READ MORE: These Stats Show the Shocking Reality of Violent Crime in Chicago

Another one, another one another one of my kids going down, I can't take much more. Those my boys and my girls, too. It don't make no sense, every time you put them back in them damn regular schools, they can't take 'em. All them kids are smart. They are smart. But if you don't give them attention they will act up-- and they don't mean it, they just gotta do something.

People scared of them. How you gonna be scared of something you don't know nothing about? Gotta stop and listen to them. If you do, they will tell you everything. And then you just have to hold it, you have to hold it now. And that's what I did, hold stuff for my boys, just hold all the stuff they keep telling me.

Check out how you can help organizations like the North Lawndale Boxing League above help kids like in Last Chance High. You can still donate to Coach's GoFundMe page too.

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