I don't usually go around hugging people I interview when I'm out on stories. Pulling strangers close like Oprah Winfrey is not my thing.
But that was before I came across Donata Johnson.
She's one tough cookie. Less than 48 hours after bullets came close to killing her only child, she'd turned her tragedy into a cause as she took up a sign and began marching through the streets of Kensington, demanding that witnesses to her family's horror come forward and identify the gunmen who injured her 2-year-old son, Pryce.
He'd been out front with his dad at 9:17 p.m. Friday when two men riding BMX-style bikes rode down the 3300 block of Malta Street. One of them reportedly yelled, "This is our block!" before bullets started flying. The boy's father was shot in the right knee and taken to Temple University Hospital, where he was scheduled for surgery Monday. Pryce was shot twice and was admitted to St. Christopher's Hospital for Children with non-life-threatening injuries.
Johnson was by his side when a hospital worker informed her of the rally planned in her son's honor Sunday. She felt she had to be there, so she headed home. When I caught up with her, she was standing in front of the house where the shooting took place. She appeared equal parts upset about her son's close call with death and righteous outrage.
"I just came home to attend the rally. My mom's up there with him now," she told me. "No one's saying anything, because I guess they're scared. At this point, you wouldn't have to be scared if we get these bad guys behind bars. You won't have to be scared of nothing. If all of us team up together and let's get them, we won't have to worry about nothing.
"It's more of us than two of them that did this," she added, her voice shaking with emotion. "So why not us all just team together and just point these guys out that did this, so they can go down? [They should] be under the jail. Honestly, I think they should get the death penalty for hurting my 2-year-old son, who is an innocent bystander. He don't deserve to be lying up there hurting right now, in pain. He's thinking he did something wrong, and he didn't. [He was] a normal kid out here playing on the step with his dad."
After the demonstration began, I was surprised to see Johnson step forward to lead the way. She grabbed a sign and, for a time, walked ahead of the group as protesters yelled, "Stand up, speak up!" I watched as she went up to neighbors' doors and handed out hastily constructed fliers with the words "Who Shot Baby Pryce?"
I couldn't help but think about how Johnson's only child had been nearly killed in a hail of bullets less than 48 hours earlier. Yet there she was, jaw clenched, walking the streets of Kensington, all but begging folks to come forward with what they knew. Unfortunately, there were no answers that day, just hugs for the young mother. That's when Johnson would crumple and the tears would fall.
It was a sad, awful scene, and one that's repeated way too often. I had expected that the streets would have been packed with people outraged over what had happened. Instead, there were only about 20 demonstrators, among them the usual faces you see any time trouble strikes. Man, I know it's bad out there, but have we really become so inured to violence that even bullets ripping into a baby don't move us to get off our collective couches? People always think this stuff won't happen to them until it does. That could have been anyone's baby who got shot while playing with his dad.
The cold-blooded perpetrator is still roaming around somewhere. If you know who it is, please do the right thing and contact authorities. Police have released video of two suspects believed to be in their 20s.
"Mister Pryce," as his mother calls him, is on the mend, even though he's temporarily back in diapers. When I asked his mother if she needed anything, she said she could use some disposable ones in a size 6. Anything else? I asked. Johnson hesitated, then mentioned that her son really likes toy cars. Her face lit up when she said that.
Johnson smiled again when she mentioned that he also could use some soap bubbles to blow. He's expected to leave the hospital soon. It sure would be nice if he had some new toys to greet him. I didn't promise his mom anything, but I told her I'd put the word out. "Anything would help," she said. If you're so inclined, let me know.
When it was time to leave, I couldn't help but notice how tiny Johnson is. She's practically a girl herself. As I said earlier, I'm not a touchy-feely person, but I grabbed her by the shoulders and squeezed as tight as I could.
"He's very strong. He's been fighting since he was born," said Johnson as the tears welled up again in her eyes. "And he's still fighting right now. That's my heart."
In so many ways, he's ours too. They both are.