Surviving Tragedy: 'It Brought Us Closer'

Ondelee Perteet and his mother, Detreena, at their home in Chicago. In 2009, then-14-year-old Ondelee was shot in the jaw at a birthday party on Chicago's West Side. The bullet severed his spine, paralyzing him from the neck down. His doctors told him that he would never walk again, but three years later, he is walking with the help of crutches.

Ondelee Perteet and his mother, Detreena, at their home in Chicago. In 2009, then-14-year-old Ondelee was shot in the jaw at a birthday party on Chicago's West Side. The bullet severed his spine, paralyzing him from the neck down. His doctors told him that he would never walk again, but three years later, he is walking with the help of crutches. Carlos Javier Ortiz/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting hide caption

itoggle caption Carlos Javier Ortiz/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

One night in 2009, Ondelee Perteet and a friend went to a party in his hometown of Chicago.

"A lot of people, they started throwing gang signs. And, you know, I got into an argument with somebody in the party, and that's when I got shot in the face," Ondelee said during a recent visit to StoryCorps with his mother, Detreena.

Ondelee at home before his prom. In Chicago, prom night is a big deal. Fifty percent of African-American Chicago high school students end up dropping out of high school before senior year. Ondelee graduated from Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Chicago on June 15, and is planning to attend college. i i

Ondelee at home before his prom. In Chicago, prom night is a big deal. Fifty percent of African-American Chicago high school students end up dropping out of high school before senior year. Ondelee graduated from Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Chicago on June 15, and is planning to attend college. Carlos Javier Ortiz/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting hide caption

itoggle caption Carlos Javier Ortiz/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
Ondelee at home before his prom. In Chicago, prom night is a big deal. Fifty percent of African-American Chicago high school students end up dropping out of high school before senior year. Ondelee graduated from Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Chicago on June 15, and is planning to attend college.

Ondelee at home before his prom. In Chicago, prom night is a big deal. Fifty percent of African-American Chicago high school students end up dropping out of high school before senior year. Ondelee graduated from Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Chicago on June 15, and is planning to attend college.

Carlos Javier Ortiz/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

He was 14.

"I got to the hospital, and the doctor came back, and he said, 'We're sorry, but he's never going to move his arms and legs again,' " said Detreena, 47. "It just tore me apart."

But rather than give up, Detreena moved into the hospital with her son.

"Seeing you drive a wheelchair with your mouth, and having to change diapers off my 14-year-old was difficult for me," she said.

But while Ondelee knew it was hard for her to see him like that, he said he "felt blessed to have my mama do this for me."

Still, did he ever consider giving up?

"Yeah," said Ondelee, who graduated from high school in June. "At first I didn't see no progress. But now I'm able to move my arms, my legs, it makes me feel good because, you know, I know that I worked hard."

The fear never goes away for Detreena, though.

"Sometimes I'm afraid that it might happen again. And it doesn't necessarily have to be them shooting at you. I'm just like, what if he just happens to be visiting somebody and gets shot? Even though I know I can't let that stop you from living, but I'm still always afraid whenever you're outside," she said.

Ondelee and Detreena visited StoryCorps in Chicago. i i

Ondelee and Detreena visited StoryCorps in Chicago. StoryCorps hide caption

itoggle caption StoryCorps
Ondelee and Detreena visited StoryCorps in Chicago.

Ondelee and Detreena visited StoryCorps in Chicago.

StoryCorps

Ondelee — now 18 and learning how to walk with a cane — is focused on the positives that came out of the situation.

"I'm not really too scared that it will happen again because it made me appreciate life more," he said. "It gave me a second chance to make better decisions. Before I got shot, we really didn't express our feelings to each other that much. We really didn't hang out that much. We didn't talk about everything like we do now, so it brought us closer."

"It's been a tremendous ride, and I'm glad we survived it. And I just want to say, I love you, kid, with all my heart," Detreena said.

Ondelee is enrolled at Malcolm X College in Chicago and plans to start school in January 2014 to study communications, with hopes of becoming a motivational speaker.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Katie Simon. Photographer Carlos Javier Ortiz's work was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and The Chicago Community Trust via Community Media Workshop.

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