2005: Carol Guzy, The Washington Post
Award for Community Service Photojournalism
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Community Service Photojournalism

Carol Guzy

This is a story of a young man who made a choice. John Thomas came to a crossroads. When faced with two very distinct life paths, he made a conscious decision to avoid the violence and turmoil that plagued his impoverished inner city neighborhood in Washington, D.C. By overcoming many obstacles during a tumultuous year at Ballou Senior High School, he became a star basketball player and graduated with honors. He is the first in his family to attend college. In what felt like a community under siege, far from the monuments and economic revitalization that thrives in other parts of the capital, the graduation ceremony meant more than just a diploma. It marked surviving high school in an area where rivalries can get a student killed, or a mistake can land a person in prison. In his 19 years of life, he experienced the pain of countless homicides, including the shooting death of a childhood friend in the hallway of his school. Fights broke out on a regular basis leading to suspensions and arrests, a student stole mercury from a chemistry lab and spread it through the building, forcing an evacuation that lasted a month and a beloved principal lost his job. Two other classmates were also slain the same year and candlelight vigils in the gym became routine. Yet John’s resolve remained steadfast amid the confusion of an already vulnerable age.

John’s journey began on a familiar, but dangerous road. Like many of his peers, he stole cars, was arrested and look toward a future of little promise. His father had been in prison since he was five years old, serving a sentence for drug a firearm conviction. An older brother spent time in jail awaiting trial and his sister survived a shooting while she was pregnant. His mother finally overcame her struggle with drugs and he now lives with her and a younger brother in a small apartment that has been witness to the blood of bodies in nearby allies. Teen homicides have risen dramatically in the city.

In a neighborhood that makes it easy to be bad but hard to be good, John grabbed a foothold somewhere in the middle. With street smarts and good grades, he was neither a nerd nor a troublemaker. His soft-spoken demeanor veiled a hidden strength and courage. His was the voice of reason for friends heading for peril. He became a role model in a world fraught with temptation to fail.

His love of basketball bordered on obsession and eventually overcame the lure of the streets. It was a salvation of sorts to keep him out of harm’s way. He practiced after school and played in amateur leagues on weekends. He frequently skipped lunch to watch friends play in the gym. At home in his bedroom, surrounded by trophies and framed posters of Michael Jordan and Alan Iverson, he played basketball video games. A defining moment came when his coach and mentor, Renaldo Gillis presented a challenge. If his grades improved he would buy him a new pair of tennis shoes. “He took off and ran with it,” said Gillis. A popular student with haunting eyes that have seen too much anguish too soon, John Thomas proudly attended graduation ceremonies. He promised Renaldo he would return one day to help someone else escape from the cycle of crime and desperation. He believes others can make decisions to avoid trouble as he did.

“That’s what it’s about – making choices,” he declares with quiet determination

-- adapted from the award entry letter for Carol Guzy

"I told him the only thing you owe me is, when you graduate from college, you come back to the 'hood and you grab somebody and bring them up, same as I grabbed you.Then your debt would be repaid." -- Renaldo Gillis

John Thomas says it is a promise he will keep.

"I didn't want to be in jail. I didn't want to be killed out here on these streets. I wanted to be successful in life which means I have to work hard to get what I want. ... My father, he's been locked up since I've been 5 years old. Every time I talk to him he tells me he loves me and I tell him I love him too." -- John Thomas

"When I was younger I didn't have any guidance and I was like a threat to society. I wanted to get what I seen other kids had. I did whatever it took to get it -- I stole cars, stood up stores, went to jail twice." -- John Thomas

John pays his respects at the home of his childhood friend, James "J-Rock" Richardson, a Ballou High School football star who was shot and killed inside the high school by another student. He remembered playing basketball with him on this courtyard when they were young.

"Just keep holding it in, it just keeps building up." -- John Thomas

John wept quietly in grief at the funeral of J-Rock. He wore a jacket with a photo collage of Richardson on the back. It has become a tradition to impose the image of slain friends on shirts worn by teens as they honor the memory of those lost to the sadness of the streets. Thomas gave Richardson's father the basketball jersey his son had worn when he was on the team, signed by the players. On it, John wrote "Luv U." At school that fateful day, he saw J-Rock in the hallway and they shook hands. Moments later he was dead.

"I seen a lot of my friends get killed and a lot of friends been locked up. And I said I didn't want to go that way but I felt like ain't no other choice." -- John Thomas

John attends the funeral of his childhood friend, James "J-Rock" Richardson who was shot and killed inside the school by another student in an ongoing dispute between two rival gangs. The emotional service was held at Paramount Baptist Church. As gospel music filled the air and mourners wailed, a steady stream of students filed by the coffin to pay their respects to a life cut short by the violence that plagues their city.

"It's hard, but if it don't kill me, it'll only make me stronger. I seen that the only way to meet my dreams was to finish high school and keep going with the education." -- John Thomas

He was a popular student in quiet way. John concentrates on a lesson in computer class. Students frequently skipped classes as instructors tried their best to teach in an atmosphere ranging from mundane to tragic. Most people know him by his nickname "Flood". He likes to tell folks it has something to do with his jump shot. When he got a tattoo it was no surprise what it read.

"Just keep walking." -- John Thomas

When other students rushed up to see the melee as security guards and D.C. police subdued a bloodied angry classmate involved in a fight at Ballou, John kept going to the library down the hall to finish an English project, quietly ignoring the commotion. D.C. police and security guards are stationed throughout the troubled public school, quickly breaking up frequent brawls.

"When I first met John Thomas, I kinda took a liking to him cause he had talent and I made him like a project and I was like -- if I could turn this kid around and make him see differently then maybe, just maybe, he may turn a corner. He might not end up a statistic like a lot of these guys do." -- Renaldo Gillis

In a time when male role models are scarce, Renaldo become a surrogate father to John. He grew up on the same block, graduated from Ballou and now owns a real estate appraisal company. He lives in Accokeek Md., in what might be considered a mansion by public housing residents. "Bullets have no names," says John's coach and mentor, Renaldo Gillis. He believes trouble can happen anytime, to good or bad kids. He saw basketball as more than a sport. It was a shield, an escape, an alternative.

"I seen that the only way to meet my dreams was to finish high school and keep going with the education.” -- John Thomas

John hugs football and track coach Noel Cyrus between classes at Ballou. Lacking the presence of a father, he displays affection to faculty and friends.

"Once you love it, it's like forever." -- John Thomas

John plays after school at the home of his aunt. His friend, Avon Ford, watches as he dunks a ball. He avoids the trouble that seems to follow many of his peers by spending most of his time playing basketball. John's shyness disappeared on the court, replaced by burning passion. He wishes his father could see him play.

"So he actually started thriving under the pressure and as every report card started coming out he was steady getting honor roll. He was steady getting four A's and a B." -- Renaldo Gillis

John gets a playful smooch from his best friend Donnell Smith, who graduated from Ballou last year.

"I started feeling proud of him. I said 'I told ya you can do it.' " -- Renaldo Gillis, coach and mentor

John gallantly carries classmate Sade Dunn when she asked for his help. Dunn hurt her leg dancing for Ballou in a competition. He has become a role model for other students and the voice of reason at times when his friends appeared headed for trouble. John was selected "Most Improved" of the senior class.

"Young black men in this city needs a lot of encouragement, a lot of love. We need a lot of role models that's gonna step up and try to grab some of these young guys and talk to them and try to lead them on the right path. I think that's what we need more so than anything." -- Renaldo Gillis, coach and mentor

A rainbow appears over his Washington, D.C., apartment building as John Thomas prepares to leave in a white tuxedo for the Ballou senior prom held at Martin's Crossroads in Greenbelt, Md. His mother stood nearby bursting with pride as she photographed her son.

"They act like we're getting married or something." -- John Thomas

John was bewildered and slightly embarrassed as a roomful of excited family members gathered at the home of his prom date, Janae West. With cameras ready, they watched the stairs for her to ascend in a delicate yellow dress.

"Tough years I went through." -- John Thomas

As John and his date Janae West prepare to leave for the prom, the couple receive a joyful sendoff with applause and pictures on their big night.

"That's what it's about -- making choices." -- John Thomas

Having made it to the end of school, John and his classmates felt that they were more than just students -- they were survivors. The bittersweet ceremony was a joyous celebration tinged with sadness as graduates remembered a year of loss and heartbreak. This was their shining moment to mark a milestone by celebrating their accomplishments in spite of overwhelming odds.

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