As part of our #HuffPostListens week in Birmingham, we are publishing a series of Life Less Ordinary stories from extraordinary Birmingham residents. Today, campaigner Beverley Thomas speaks about the shooting that killed her daughter Charlene Ellis and wounded her second daughter Sophie, and her work to end violence affecting young people in Birmingham. To illustrate the series we have commissioned the respected photographer Vanley Burke to do a series of portraits, which will be on show in Birmingham this week.
The night of 2 January 2003, there was a party in Solihull at a club. Days before my daughters Charlene and Sophie asked me if they could go. I said yes, they didn’t really go out so I thought I might as well.
Sophie, Charlene and their cousin Cheryl called a taxi from my house. I wasn’t aware what time it finished, all I knew was where it was. I stayed awake, just waiting, even for them just to ring to say they were on their way back home. At around 4 o’clock, my phone rang - it was a call saying that Sophie and Charlene had been shot. When I put the phone down, I was anxious and very frightened. At that point all I could think was ‘shot?’ I didn’t know what to do.
What I did know though was that they were shot on Birchfield Road. I didn’t live far from there, but at that point I told myself I’m not going down there. I could have, it was about five minutes away, but I made the choice not to go down and stay home for my sister, for my mum. Shortly after, I remember an ambulance going by. Flashing lights, no noise, going right past my house and thinking ‘that’s got to be them’.
At the hospital, when the doctor came, he came with a police officer. The officer sat me down and told me what had happened, and said Charlene had passed away, and Sophia was fighting for her life.
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I managed to get to the door of the room where Charlene was, but at first I didn’t want go in there. They told me to go in, to go in now and identify my daughter. I honestly couldn’t do that, I was saying ‘I don’t want to do this, do I have to do it’? But I was forced to go in. I still feel anger about that moment to this day.
Eventually, Sophie was moved. She was in critical care for days. She’d been shot in her chest, in her arm, in her right hand, and had several operations - putting pins in, taking pins out. She was there in hospital for over a month. On top of that, now, after everything that had happened, I had to keep going back to the same hospital. Sophie was in there fighting, and I was going through the same doors, trying to keep myself sane because I was in the same area I was when I found out Charlene died.
Sophie had to learn to use her left hand, she wasn’t able to move so I had to dress her, feed her, move her. When I think of how she is now, it’s hard - she’s scarred outside but she’s scarred on the inside as well. What helps her keep going is her children. Having children took her in a different direction in life, gave her something to focus on beyond what happened to her. Obviously the pain is still there. Mentally it’s hard for her too, in a different way, because she was there that night and she still has the memories.
We don’t really speak about it. If Sophie ever does her interviews, I’m not there. If I ever do interviews, she’s not there. We have done a few workshops and talks with her there but, for example, when I spoke about what happened with identifying Charlene, she didn’t know all that because she was in the hospital.
Straight after the shootings, Marcia Shakespeare, the mother of Letisha who was also killed that night, and I founded the Letisha and Charlene Educations Awards. Because both girls were still in education when they died, we decided to create something positive out of that negative and try to help kids that wanted to finish their education but were struggling financially. We started giving out funds of £2,000 to students that wanted back into education, and the awards helped loads of people. Many have gone on to become things like doctors, and many come back for our events and tell their stories and say how these grants gave them the chance to progress in their education.
Marcia got her MBE a few years ago for her work in schools, which I also do, but I mostly work in mediation, working with parents that have children in groups. I like that kind of work, I like helping parents gain some responsibility for their children’s activities.
If you’re trying to work with people, if you use the word ‘gang’, straight away they put a wall up, so in my work I don’t like to use the term at all - it’s stigmatising. I prefer to say ‘a group’ of people, even if they may be involved in some criminal activity. I don’t think anybody sees every group, of any nationality or colour, as a ‘gang’. People think that groups of only certain people are gangs. Some of these boys might just be going to the library!
It’s a glamourising word too, but mostly stigmatising. With parents, you could ‘your son’s in a gang’, as the police often do - I will always say that they might be in a group involved in criminal activity, and that’s the way to get through to parents.
I think the violence is worse than back in 2003. If you look at the age group of the men involved, they were in their 20s - but look at what’s happening now and these boys are in their teens, and they’re using kitchen knives that came from their homes. I just think that from where we were in 2003, we’re at a different level now.
They say we need more from community leaders and community centres, but it can’t be done just by them, the greater part has to come from the parents. The first role model that any child will have is their parent. From the moment they have that child, they are their role model. So it doesn’t make sense for parents to say ‘go over there or go to this centre’ - you have got a part to play. If you’re going to have a child go to a centre you need to go with them, your child need to see you do the work, so they can see you are trying too.
The problem as well is that when we say young people need help, we have to remember what type of household that child is coming from. We need to get into houses and find out the lifestyle of the child, where they are coming from. We have to work with the parents, they have to get on board - they must be our first port of call.
As to how parents respond to our work, it’s half and half. Some parents will live in the same lifestyle as the children, and then you have parents who live a decent life but don’t know what the outside world is all about - so some don’t know what their own children are doing, and would want to know what’s going on and direct their child back into the household.
When Charlene and Sophie’s shooting, it was only then all of a sudden I started to learn about what was happening, about certain postcodes and who can’t go here and who can’t go there. The shooting in January was revenge for a shooting that happened in December. A relative from that shooting was out there the night of the party that the girls were at.
Again, with the postcodes, parents have to stand up and break that down say ‘no’. I always say we have to have the parental support when you’re working with the child. Have to. One person could have other brothers, other sisters, other people who might be vulnerable. We have to work with whole families. We were working with one young person, whose mum was working all the time, saying to us it’s not fair to only work with her brother, what about her?
My work now mostly involves mediation, workshops around choices and consequences - me, Sophie and others. We work with young to see their lifestyles, the choices they make in life, can result in people like Charlene, 17 and 18-year-olds, getting shot. The things that they choose to do can cause four people to get shot. We also work in churches, schools, organisations like that. After the shooting I turned to my church. There were lots of supporting people around, but going into church was something that really helped me through.
To other parents like me, I would say not to make an argument about what’s going on with your child. I think that why I say that is because if you’re not aware of what’s going on with your children, by the time you come to terms with it it can be it’s too late. I wouldn’t like to see anyone take the steps I took. To go through those Christmases, birthdays, Mother’s Days. There’s two ways that this lifestyle can go - prison, or being six feet under.
When I speak to parents, sometimes they don’t want to acknowledge what’s going on. I try to get them to acknowledge what’s happening only because I would not want them to walk the road I’ve walked, go through the same things I went through. I want them to be more aware. That’s the message I want to send. You might think everything will be alright but I don’t want to see what happened to my family happen to anyone again. You don’t want have an empty chair, have three when you used to have four, you don’t want to miss Mother’s Day cards, things like that.
As told to Charlie Lindlar
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