Victoria Wylie wants the kids on her youth commission to understand the reality of gun violence, because she worries they don't see the full picture.
They know gunfire is routine in many of their neighborhoods.
They hear about nameless victims who either live or die.
And that's where their understanding of the possibilities ends.
Except, as the story by my colleague David Gambacorta and me shows, for many of the estimated 116,255 people who are shot in the United States every year, the shell casings from the bullets that tear into their flesh and shatter their spines aren't the only things that end up in the cracks and shadows of the gun violence epidemic.
Cracks and shadows like the ones John Muldrow, 39, invited Wylie's kids into recently as he spoke to them about life after being shot. Muldrow was shot and paralyzed when he was 19. He prepared to die that night, he said. What he was never prepared for was the daily struggle of a lifelong disability. Or the emotional and financial burden as he and his mother embarked on a bureaucratic scavenger hunt for resources.
It wasn't until 2013, after 14 years of dragging his body, and his wheelchair, up and down the front steps of his South Philadelphia home and into the living room, that he was able to get a ramp and a chair lift. After nearly two decades with few to no services, a city program his mother helped him find finally allowed him to go upstairs in the home they share.
"If there are programs that can help you faster, they're not putting it out there," he said.
And yet the messages came rolling in as soon as I posted a preview online of our story about this country's forgotten paralyzed gunshot survivors: Had we heard of this program over here, that program over there? How could we not know about this program over here and that program over there?
Here's how. For our story, we spoke to more than a dozen paralyzed gunshot victims. Over many years, I've talked to countless more — and almost unanimously they've echoed Muldrow's experience:
If there is help beyond the handful of government programs with long waits and limited funds, that is news to those who need them most. And no matter how fantastic your intentions or your program, if the people you aim (and are paid) to help don't know about you, there is a problem.
After 20 years of being a Columbine survivor, Richard Castaldo's mom, Connie Michalik, had a simple, almost incredulous question: Are there programs that could help us?
There are some, but not nearly enough. In the last few days, I've learned of a few more: A couple of crowdsourcing programs that help survivors, Gun Violence Survivors Foundation and Help Hope Live, which started more than 30 years ago as a way to help organ transplant patients but has grown to include spinal cord injuries. Temple Occupational Therapy students have provided volunteer support to some families. On Dec. 11, the Special Olympics is hosting an "Inclusion Forum" in Philadelphia that the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities said will address some of the access issues we brought up in the story, But (deep breath, y'all) it's not open to the public.
There are a lot of things that need to happen for this forgotten population. Hospitals need to start tracking these types of injuries. Only the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania could provide us with the number of gunshot paralysis cases it has had: at least 85 since 2012.
The best suggestion I've heard to help the victims in a meaningful way is Columbine survivor Jami Amo's idea of taxing guns.
A national clearinghouse with services and resources available is beyond long overdue.
But at the very least, the people and programs that aim to help this population need to do a much better job at reaching and helping them, past handing them a booklet with programs that might be able to help.
During our reporting, I heard more than once that you can only hold people's hands so much through the process. I heard that from people whose jobs should be exactly that.
We have a whole population that we owe more to. Some hand-holding to the few options they now have is the absolute least we can do.