Paralyzed Ex-Drug Dealers Urge Kids to Stay Away From Guns and Gang Violence

Playing Ex-Drug Dealers Paralyzed by Gun Violence Urge Kids to Stay Out of Gangs

By the time Kareem Nelson was 37, he was paralyzed from the waist down and had spent four years in prison — but it took another brush with death for him to turn his life around.

During a period of what he called "astronomical" drug prices in August 2013, Kareem said he received a call from a relative about good crack at low cost. He borrowed more than $10,000 from friends in hopes of turning a quick profit, paying back his friends and walking away with his own piece of the earnings.

Instead, he said his relative betrayed him, disappearing with the money and leaving Kareem indebted to the "friends."

That same night, they took Kareem — in a wheelchair by this time — to an abandoned lot, where he was forced to beg for his life.

In the end, they spared it.

The harrowing experience pushed Kareem to leave street life behind for good, and his organization — Wheelchairs Against Guns — was born.

"I [said], 'I am going to talk to these kids so no child will ever have to go through what I just went through,'" Kareem said.

***

Wheelchairs Against Guns is a New York-based non-profit organization with a mission to protect at-risk youth from the dangers of bullying, gangs and gun violence.

Now 43, Kareem and his partner, 41-year-old Luis Lopez, visit inner-city schools and churches several times a month. Their anti-violence workshops help young people develop self-esteem, critical thinking and conflict resolution skills.

Growing up in tough New York neighborhoods, neither had ever held down a job and both were drawn to the streets. Kareem sought camaraderie; Luis was looking to provide for his family.

As teens, they became ensnared in the drug trade, and both would wind up paralyzed before those years were through.

Luis has been confined to a wheelchair since he was shot at age 14. By then, he’d already been selling drugs for four years.

“I was raised by a single parent — my mom," Luis said. "I don’t know my father. My mom used to get high. I pretty much didn’t have anything. There were times we wouldn’t have food to eat."

His mother provided what she could for her four children, but at school, Luis' peers were unforgiving.

"I had funny sneakers and hand-me-down clothes," he said. "I used to get teased."

When he first began selling crack, he didn’t know that’s what he was doing. He said a neighbor would ask him to take packages to a waiting car and he'd earn a few dollars.

Later, an older man Luis met through his neighbor taught him about drugs. He looked to the man as a father figure, he said.

"He taught me how to cook the drugs," he said. "[I] watched him cook it and sell it and bag it."

Luis used his drug money to ease his mother’s burden. He’d buy milk for his two younger brothers. Other times it was eggs or bread. Their situation was dire.

“One time a family took me out to a pumpkin [farm] around Halloween or something and I brought that pumpkin home and my mother boiled it and we ate it for dinner and the seeds we ate — that got breakfast,” Luis said. "That’s how serious it was."

In 1991, days before Christmas, then-14-year-old Luis went to a friend’s house in Brooklyn with the loaded gun he carried around for safety.

When he arrived, he found a place to stash the weapon, along with his drugs. But his friend’s older brother found it and removed the bullets before handing it back to him.

"I asked him, 'Where the bullets?' and I handed him the gun back [and told him], 'Put the bullets back. Put the gun back where you found it,'" Luis recalled.

As Luis remembers, the brother loaded the gun and pointed it at him and before he realized what was happening, he heard a "pop" and raised his hand to cover his face.

Luis believes the brother wanted to "steal his drugs."

"The bullet went through my hand, hit my face, my jugular vein and traveled and hit my spine. I didn’t feel the bullet, I didn’t feel nothing," Lopez said. "Blood was shooting out of my face and that’s when I knew I was shot."

***

Like Luis,  Kareem began selling drugs as a pre-teen, although his life had the potential to be vastly different.

His mother wanted to send him to boarding school. He excelled in sports, and was even offered a football scholarship by the New Hampton School in New Hampshire, but he didn’t want to leave his neighborhood. He believes the decision changed his life.

"I gravitated outside and when I got outside I realized that [you had to do] the cool things to be accepted,"  Kareem said. "One of the cool things that everyone was doing was selling drugs."

By age 17, Kareem had already been charged with gun possession and put on probation.

He said he was selling drugs in different places, particularly Atlanta, until he witnessed one of his friends shot dead. He left the area and settled in Baltimore in 1995, when he was 20.

His ambition to make more money selling drugs in Baltimore drove him to "bully" a local drug dealer who had carved out some of the turf for himself.

“When I saw him, my energy was so hot-headed that I knew I could fight,” Kareem said. “I put my hands on him and beat him up and his friend ultimately shot me.”

As he lay in the ambulance, he recalled having no feeling in his body.

“I kept asking why I couldn’t move," he said.

The paramedic then tickled his toes, asking if he could feel it.

"He was like, 'Yeah man, you can’t feel your legs, so you might be paralyzed,'" Kareem said. "I didn’t believe him."

Doctors would later confirm the paramedic's diagnosis, but it took several days for the reality to set in.

"I was having dreams about just getting up, going to the cleaners to get my clothes," Kareem said. "You know, putting the key in my door and I kept having those dreams and waking up and realizing I couldn’t do nothing."

In the six months after doctors told him he was paralyzed from the chest down, Kareem was on suicide watch.

At his nursing home, Kareem broke the rules. He spat at nurses and smoked pot to deal with the pain.

“I was a very neat and clean dude and when I got shot I couldn’t take care of myself anymore and a lot of the nurses weren’t treating me like I wanted,” he said. “I was a hot head too.”

His bad attitude eventually got him kicked out.

“You know when you take a person that is used to doing everything for themselves, just out and about enjoying life," Kareem said. "I consider myself to be very strong. To take all my strength, [it] crippled me."

Now confined to a wheelchair, he eventually relocated to New York. And it wasn’t long before he was back to doing what he knew. 

"I didn’t know a 9-to-5," Kareem said. "Selling drugs pays the bills. It puts food in my stomach. It clothes me. That’s what I went back to."

He would give drugs to his friends to sell for him and they'd bring back the money, just like they had done before.

In 2003, he was convicted of conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of crack cocaine. He served more than four years in prison.

Kareem was shuffled between three different state prisons during his sentence at the Federal Medical Center. He described prison life as a "hell" that lacked the medical care he needed. 

Even after leaving prison, he continued to sell drugs until that fateful day in 2013.

***

It took Luis much longer than Kareem to come to terms with his paralysis. It wasn’t until two years after the shooting that he began to rise out of his depression.

“When I first woke up [after being shot] I felt something in my mouth," Luis said. "All I heard was, ‘Beep beep beep.'"

He wanted to go to the bathroom but doctors told him he had a diaper on. He said he “flipped out” and doctors put him back in a medically induced coma.

When he awoke the second time, doctors told him he was paralyzed from the neck down.

"I didn’t even really understand what that meant," Luis said. "I thought that I would be able to walk again."

As time passed and he saw kids come in with wheelchairs and leave with canes, the depth of his injury became clear to him. Like Kareem, Luis was put on suicide watch. He eventually regained slight movement in his left arm, but it wasn’t enough to give him hope. He thought about rolling himself down a flight of steps in an attempt to take his own life.

"I thought my life was over,” Luis said. "Like being a little kid. Yeah, I used to sell drugs, but I always wanted to be a fireman. I had dreams."

Luis was in the hospital for three months before he was sent to an in-patient rehabilitation facility in Valhalla, N.Y., where he lived for two-and-a-half years.

“It was hard; I was coping," he said. "Learning how to be in a wheelchair, learning how to use my body again, learning how to use the bathroom, going through all that and still trying to accept."

But there were some moments where his days of recovery felt less dark. Luis attended school at the facility and enjoyed learning. He received more one-on-one attention because of the small classes. Eventually, he achieved a high school diploma.

"It was a big accomplishment," Luis said. "I was the first one in my family to graduate high school."

When released from the facility, he registered for college, but a debilitating infection forced him to drop out.

“When you’re trying to do something good and then something comes along and brings you down, it deters you," Luis said. "It breaks your confidence down."

Living back at home in the Jamaica Baisley Housing Projects in Queens, Luis eventually returned to a life of selling drugs.

"I tried to stop a couple of times, but money got low again and it was like, 'What are we going to do?’” he said.

***

Luis was still intermittently selling drugs when he met Kareem in 2013. They were introduced to each other after a social worker in the Brooklyn building where Luis lived told him about Wheelchairs Against Guns.

As a teen at the rehab facility, Luis had often been called on to encourage newcomers, so he knew he enjoyed motivational speaking. He felt that hearing about Kareem's program was fate.

The social worker gave Kareem Luis' number.

“He called me, and ever since, every time he called me and told me he had a school, I was there,” Luis said. “The first time I did it, I was nervous, but I got through it and it just got better and better."

Not only was his participation in the program giving him confidence — it also gave him the push he needed to leave street life behind.

“I felt like I was telling [the kids] something not to do and I was still involved with it,” Luis said. “I knew it was wrong and I wanted to stop and I wanted to find another way."

Wheelchairs Against Guns became his way and, meanwhile, Kareem and Luis quickly became close friends.

“I think that WAG gave him the closure he needed," Kareem said. "He sacrificed the streets for a better cause. The more you do it, the more genuine you have to be with the kids."

The pair has now spoken to thousands of students at more than 100 New York City schools. Their organization is run on donations and money from their social security checks, according to Kareem, who said they are also occasionally paid for their talks.

As an ex-perpetrator and as a survivor of gun violence, Kareem wants to understand as much as he wants to teach.

African-American children in communities like Kareem's have the highest rates of firearm mortality overall, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Pediatrics. The study found black children are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than their white counterparts.

Kareem is tackling the issue in his own community by holding workshops with Luis in the schools and sharing their stories.

“I came up with three things that I did not have as a child and that was conflict resolution strategies, critical thinking techniques, and positive self-esteem and self-respect reinforcement,” Kareem said.

These are the skills Kareem and Luis now focus on developing with the kids.

“Our mission is simple, it’s to protect your children from bullying, gangs, and gang violence,” Kareem said. "A lot of kids come up to us and say, 'You know, you changed my life.' Some have said, 'I was part of a gang and the big homies don’t really care about me.' A lot of kids have come to ask us how they can get out of a gang."

The pair has more recently started a safe space for the children in Luis' Brooklyn building. During a May event, about 15 kids ranging in age from elementary school to teens, showed up, sat in a circle and listened intently Kareem and Luis tell their stories.

"I’ve been in prison.  I’ve got shot. I’ve shot people. I’ve stabbed people. I’ve cut people. And it’s gotten me nowhere," Kareem told kids during the workshop.

"I tell them the things I used to do and I get kind of graphic because I want to them to see how it’s scary," Kareem added.

He also emphasizes the downsides of life in a wheelchair, saying, "I let them know how my bodily functions have changed — no more sports — everything is an effort. It takes me longer to do everything."

At the recent safe space, the pair held a small spelling bee. The kids won prizes and then went back to eating hot dogs, competing in a PlayStation basketball tournament and playing on the jungle gym outside.

Trever Iaconetti, 12, lives in the building. When he first heard Luis story, he said he was saddened by it. He’s grateful for a safe space where he doesn’t have to worry about violence.

"In the park, I see a lot of people getting mad just over a game, like a basketball game, but I like it here because we don’t fight," Trever said. “I am worried about gun violence because I don’t want it to happen to my family."

His mom, Angela Andino, has six kids and spent time in prison while they were growing up. She said she’s happy to see her children surrounded by the positive influences she lacked in her own life.

"I didn't have no one to talk to because I did not have stable parents at home," Andino said. "I was up by myself raising my little sisters and brothers. These kids need positive role models."

It isn’t just the kids reaping the benefits of Wheelchairs Against Guns. Since beginning the program, Luis and Kareem say their own lives are much more settled.

Kareem is married with his first baby on the way. Luis, after beating cancer in 2016, now has a 2-year-old son and is in a steady relationship.

"It feels good," Luis said. "I am finally doing something positive after all the negative. I’ve been in this chair 26 years now. I didn’t think I was going to make it this far."

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