In the first instant when the bullets struck the car, Latrell Jackson thought it must be fireworks, or pebbles pinging off the road. His first instinct was to protect his 2-year-old cousin riding in the back seat when he felt a sharp pain in his side. That’s when he knew something was really wrong.
This June, the high school junior was paying a surprise visit to his grandmother in Chicago when he was struck by gunfire seven times while riding in a vehicle. He spent 12 days in the hospital with a collapsed left lung, internal bleeding, damage to his stomach, small and large intestines, a split kidney, a lacerated spleen, broken ribs and damage to his back and hip. Doctors were uncertain if he would ever wake up or walk again. But he defied expectations and was able to move into his grandmother’s house in Chicago until he was well enough to fly back to his home in White Bear Lake. His mother, Mentoyia Jackson, a playground supervisor and Extended Day teacher aide at Matoska Elementary, had to stop working and stay home with him full time to care for him during his recovery.
“When my son first got shot, it was almost as if life was over,” Mentoyia said. “I didn’t know if he was going to even wake up, because no one that I personally know has been shot seven times and came back to talk about it. You only see that type of stuff in the movies.”
When he was younger, Latrell attended Matoska and Sunrise Park Middle School and is now a junior at North St. Paul High School. Along the way, he has made an indelible impression on his teachers and fellow students.
“He’s the kindest kid,” said Kristen Konop, a fifth-grade teacher at Matoska Elementary. Konop remembered Latrell from when she worked as a coordinator at Sunrise Park, and stays in touch with his mother. “You can hear it in his voice and in his soul. He’s very focused and super empathetic toward other people. He’s been processing all of this, and yet you hear him almost worry about other people.”
The shooting happened only a week after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. When Konop talked to Mentoyia about Floyd’s death, she learned that Latrell was feeling misunderstood and unseen as a Black person in a predominantly white community. Knowing of Konop’s interest in social justice, she invited him to volunteer in Minneapolis with her family. A few days later, when she emailed Mentoyia to connect about more social justice resources, she learned Latrell had been shot.
“Now you’ve got a kid who, on top of feeling unseen, COVID is isolating him. He has this traumatic thing that happened to him. How do you make him feel loved?” Konop said.
During the first few months of Latrell’s recovery, Konop and the others at Matoska were able to put together a care package for Latrell, but she also reached out to Latrell’s middle school teacher, Odelis Anderson, to discuss the possibility of a GoFundMe effort. But with complications of COVID-19, the school year was off to a chaotic start.
“Then Latrell sent me the kindest email and said, ‘Hey Ms. KK, are you still able to help me?’ I was blown away by the maturity of the email; that is who he is. It’s very easy to offer to help such an amazing family and to know that that help will not be overlooked. They are a very kind, loving, appreciative part of our community.”
When the GoFundMe site went live in early December, it asked for $6,000 to cover Latrell’s medical expenses, three months of Mentoyia’s lost wages, and repairs to the family car.
“We planned for 30 days,” said Konop. “In two hours, it was close to $6,000.”
Organizers raised the goal several times, up to $15,000, and decided to leave it open to help pay for Latrell’s future medical care. In addition to donations, many people from the community reached out to ask if they could help in other ways, such as meals, groceries or car repair. At the time of writing, the GoFundMe has raised $27,359 in support of Latrell.
“(Latrell) said the most important thing that mattered to him was not the money, it was the people,” Mentoyia said. “He said White Bear Lake really showed up for him, and he was a tad bit overwhelmed.”
“I was amazed by the support,” Latrell said. “Not just from the fundraiser, but from the White Bear families. They haven’t forgotten about me, they’ve always just wished nothing but the best for me. Even though the times are rough right now, they’re sad I’m going through it, they’re glad they can be part of my life still and let me know how loved I am in the White Bear community.”
His mother has been a pillar of strength for Latrell during his recovery.
“He is an athlete, so it’s really hard to tell an athlete whose body is trained to move to lay down,” Mentoyia said. “Right now he is doing okay. He has his times where he says sometimes it feels like he got shot all over again, which will leave him balled up in the bed sleeping all day because he sleeps the pain away.”
Latrell had to learn how to walk again and now uses a cane to move around. In-person learning has been impossible for him, so his academics have been entirely virtual this semester. Yet even the physical injuries can’t keep Latrell from his dreams for long. Latrell’s goal is to someday be drafted to the NBA, starting by earning a college basketball scholarship.
“Probably a month or so after he got shot, he snuck to a couple of basketball tournaments and played. You should have seen the look on my face,” Mentoyia said. “The coaches said he did pretty good. He knew when to go sit down because of the punctured lung and that fractured limb. He paid a lot more attention to his body than he normally would have.”
“I wanted to feel free again, not trapped,” Latrell said. “How it was to be on the court again. I was rushing myself though. I just wanted to feel that feeling, so after that, I’m taking time to really heal.”
The perpetrator of the shooting has still not been identified, although Mentoyia gets occasional updates from the Chicago detective on the case. In the meantime, the Jacksons have been overwhelmed by the support from the White Bear Lake community.
Latrell still has a long way to go toward recovery. He attends regular physical therapy sessions, but deals with constant pain. He is also starting to receive mental health support to help process the shock and pain that follows such a traumatic event.
“I just want to get healthy,” Latrell said. “I know what I want to do; I just have to be healthy and be ready academically so that I have the opportunity and don’t miss out on it.”
The GoFundMe for Latrell Jackson will be open until Jan. 8, in time for Latrell’s 17th birthday.