Gun violence leaves lasting impact on Birmingham's youth: 'My students go to more funerals than they do graduations'

Gun violence leaves lasting impact on Birmingham's youth: 'My students go to more funerals than they do graduations'

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - June 25, 2013, was just a normal summer day for Zaria Riley and her family.

The teenager made a quick run to the neighborhood store with her brother to pick up a bag of chips. But their seemingly normal day suddenly turned tragic.

"I heard gunshots," Riley recalled.

Her brother, 19-year-old Edwin Wayne, had been struck. It happened outside a convenience store on 12th Street West in West End.

"His eyes was rolling to the back of his head and I was like, 'Oh, my God! What's going on?' I was so young," she explained.

Riley was just 13 years old at the time. Her older brother was gunned down right before her eyes.

"I feel like a part of me just left. I feel heartbroken. He was the only type a male figure I had in my life that cared for me," said Riley.

His death has haunted her since that day more than four years ago.

"Sometimes, I have dreams about it. If I just think on it, it just pops up," she said.

For Riley, her life got off track. She missed two years of school, but she is finding her way.

"You will find cases like Zaria's where they are not able to go on. They aren't able to keep focused and it plays out in a variety of ways," said Donna Dukes, the founder of Maranthan Academy, the non-profit private school Riley attends.

Dukes said this is the common effects of gun violence with children. She sees it firsthand through the students who attend her school.

"I have several students who have lost more than three family members or friends during the course of one school year to violent crimes. I have one young lady who actually lost seven family members and friends," Dukes said.

Dukes said there are some true challenges when working with critically at-risk youth.

"My students go to more funerals than they do graduations," Dukes said.

Through the school, some students are making breakthroughs. Riley is back on track and set to graduate in May.

"Now, by the grace of God and the support of individuals and corporations, they are here with us and picking up the pieces," said Dukes.

"When I cross the stage, I really want him to be there with me but I know he will in the spirit. I know he'll be there for me," Riley said referring to her brother.

Maranathan Academy has 10 students enrolled with a wait-list of 61 students.

Since its existence, more than 300 students have graduated.

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