2 gun violence victims share their stories of hope after getting GEDs

CHICAGO -- Two gunshot victims, both with spinal cord injuries and a lifelong struggle had the goal to graduate, but they took that challenge to a whole new level.

On Tuesday, Leomar Leyva and Charles Winters celebrated a milestone at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab -- earning their GEDs.

For both young men, the journey to complete high school was derailed by gun violence. And for Winters, it was exactly 12 years ago on Tuesday that he was shot.

“I will never forget it. We were goofing around in the street, and there was a group of boys on the sidewalk. Two guys drew guns and started shooting. As I turned around I got shot in the back,” Winters said.

He was just 17 at the time.

“I was a rough kid, rough kid. Didn’t really listen too much. I always wanted to do my own thing. was a hard head, which pretty much got me in the predicament I’m in right now. I told my mama in 2012, I was actually on the run from the police in my wheelchair, and she asked me, ‘What am I going to do with myself?’ I told her, ‘I’m going to turn myself in and as soon as I get out I’m going to earn my GED,” Winters said.

And he did it alongside Leyva, a fellow spinal cord injury patient he met by chance on a train. It was Leyva– who had dropped out of high school his sophomore year -- who encouraged his new friend to attend GED classes with him.

“September 15, 2009, I was a victim of gun violence. Everything happened over a Mexican flag. It was Independence Day. My mom was like, ‘Leo don’t go out. It’s going to be dangerous out there. There’s going to be a lot of people.’”

She was right. When a group of gang members stole their Mexican flag, Leyva and his friends decided to get it back. But the situation quickly grew violent.

“I turned around, I walked away. As soon as I walked away, I got shot. All I could remember just thinking about my mom. What was my mom going to feel? If I could take time back and take my mom’s words and not go out I would have been alright,” Leyva said.

“The prospects for employment when you’ve had a spinal cord injury and have not graduated from high school are very slim,” Pam Capraro, manager of the vocational rehabilitation program at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, said.

That’s why capraro and her colleagues at the ability lab started the GED program for individuals like Winters and Leyva.

“These two gentlemen have put so much time, dedication and effort into this program. Between therapy and family obligations and rolling over to the Shirley Ryan Lab in the snow and rain, but getting there and doing it,” Capraro said.

“I’m glad I can make my mama proud now. I did it. I did it,” Winters said.

“My life has been pretty amazing, I should say. I overcame a lot. And today I’m here graduating for my GED. I’m just happy that I did it,” Leyva said.

They are the first to graduate in the hospital sponsored program which is specifically geared toward people with spinal cord injuries – since the challenge of going to school is so great, this gives them a special opportunity to learn within the walls of the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab.

There are six more people currently working toward their GEDs.