The youngest victim of last week's mass shooting at a South Side park is getting better by the day, but his mother worries that her 3-year-old son's fears are just beginning.
"I don't think he ever gonna, you know, feel safe in a park," said Shamarah Leggett, 24, outside the hospital where her son Deonta Howard was being treated for a gunshot wound to the face. "He always say he want to go to the park. He say, 'I don't wanna go on the baby swing, I wanna go on the big people swing.' ... But since he been talking, he hasn't said anything about a park. He just wanna go home."
Deonta was on a basketball court in Cornell Square Park with a crowd of people last Thursday night when at least one gunman armed with a "military-grade" rifle walked up and opened fire, wounding Deonta and 12 other people. Shell casings found around the blood-soaked basketball court in the 1800 block of West 51st Street were of the kind typically ejected from AK-47 rifles.
Leggett said she was with her son as he played basketball. When the shots rang out, people fell to the ground, either to take cover or because they were hit, she said.
As Leggett looked up, she saw her son's face covered in blood. "He wasn't crying," she recalled Monday. "And I said, 'Baby, be still because you got a big hole in your face.' "
The bullet hit the boy in the ear and exited his cheek. On Monday, his mother told the Tribune her boy was expected to go home in a few days. His face and right eye remain swollen, but he is eager to leave Mount Sinai Hospital, she said.
Leggett said her son will later need reconstructive plastic surgery. He had been scheduled to start preschool Monday.
"He just keep saying, 'Ma, they shot me, they shot me with a gun. You heard me, mama?' And I say, 'Yeah, I heard you.' But I just say, 'You OK. You a big boy. You a soldier.' "
While she called her neighborhood tightknit, Leggett said the shooting has left her pondering a move to the suburbs so her sons can grow up in a more "peaceful" environment. Her brother, Jerome Howard, 21, was fatally shot in the Woodlawn neighborhood earlier this month, she said.
"Everybody that got shot (Thursday), we like a family. You know? We was all up at the park together. We either live next door to each other or downstairs from each other or you know across the alley or around the corner."
Leggett's neighbors say violence has become so commonplace in their Back of the Yards neighborhood that they keep their children close to home. And they worry that police patrols, stepped up after last week's shooting, are already receding.
'How do these kids know how to run?'
"My kids mean everything to me," said Keeyana Keith, 24, after she and her brother walked her 5- and-6-year-old children to Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy adjacent to Cornell Square Park Monday morning. "I'm scared for them.
"I hear gunshots, I know how to run," she said, tears streaming down her face. "How do these kids know how to run from gunshots?"
Her brother Dennis Earl, 30, said violence in the neighborhood had been a problem long before the park shooting.
"Ain't nothing changed since Thursday, to tell the truth," said Earl. "We don't have a library in the Back of the Yards. Doesn't that tell you that the people don't care?"
'I don't have my kids out in the street'
Esmeralda Carlos, 30, whose daughter is a seventh-grader at the Daley school, said she avoids lingering near the park and makes sure her children do the same.
She kept her older son busy as he was growing up, making sure he wasn't hanging out in the street. "We go straight home," she said. "I don't have my kids out in the street. If they hang out with the wrong person – there's a lot of gangbangers."
One of her daughter's classmates was at the park Thursday night with his parents, but Carlos doesn't believe any of them were hurt. The next day, she noticed more police patrolling the area by the school on foot and in cars. "I don't know if that's going to be a temporary thing or a permanent thing," she said. "It'd be nice if it were a permanent thing."