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"Put the guns down. You don't only end somebody else's life. You end your own life."

Last week, I talked to Dereka LeTese Ross about the death of Cardereon Preister, the father of her five-year-old daughter Shelby, who was shot and killed in Evanston on the night of September 10, 2013, when he was 21 years old. Dereka, who graduated from Evanston Township High School in 2001, had a young daughter and was seven months pregnant when Cardereon was murdered. Though the two weren't together when Cardereon was killed, they were still good friends and planned to co-parent their daughter. Dereka found out that Cardereon had been shot when her friend, who had been Face-Timing with Cardereon, texted Dereka to say that she had heard a shot and that Cardereon's phone had suddenly gone black. Evanston resident Matthew Dubose, then 18, was charged with his murder. Dereka and I sat down together at Family Focus Evanston last Friday. She was there to bring cupcakes to Kingsway Preparatory School, housed at Family Focus, for her daughter's birthday. We talked about Cardereon, their relationship (she was 27 when they met; he was 19; they both loved to read), and how Cardereon's death has affected her and her daughter. We also talked a lot about Dereka's life--with lots of challenges and successes--which I'll write about in a different post.

Dereka graduated from SIU in 2005 with a dual degree in psychology and criminal justice and has a Masters degree in workforce education and development. She had been working toward her PhD in adult and higher education when Cardereon was killed. She took a leave of absence, but plans to return to complete her degree. Dereka readily acknowledges that Cardereon was "not the most innocent person in the world," (he had been arrested more than once, served time in prison for a felony), and because of his record, he had difficulty finding a job. But the night she found out he'd been shot, she says, she was lost. "Who would want to come and shoot him? Maybe it wasn't meant for him," she remembers thinking. "He was a lovable person. He was likable. He was very friendly. So I was like, what happened? What's going on?" Cardereon, Dereka says, was a motivator, that even though he felt stuck in his own life, he tried to motivate other people to succeed in theirs. "He was a supporter. Any idea I came up with that I told him about he'd say, 'You can really do that," she says. "I guess he felt like because the odds were stacked against him because of his background, those who didn't have challenges or barriers preventing them from success, he believed that they could make it."

Dereka encourages anyone who wants to turn in their guns to take advantage of the Evanston Police Department's gun buyback next Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, 1330 Ridge. For each functional, unloaded gun you turn in, you'll receive $100. Dereka says that after Cardereon died she felt like her life was over. "It was like having to adjust your life to no longer seeing someone that you've seen every day, all day, that you talk to all day long."

Here are some excerpts from our interview: DE: After he was shot, what did it do to your life? DR: It completely changed my whole life. That was a life-altering event. Once they pronounced him dead, which was about an hour after we had been at the hospital, that moment, I just completely shut down. When he died, I would attend church, but that's all I was doing. I wasn't there literally. My mind was gone. It was like I was existing. I wasn't living. It didn't help that Shelby looks identical to Cardereon. When she came into this world, I've never seen a child look identical to somebody. DE: And how did it make you feel? DR: Sad. It was like a bittersweet moment. When I had Shelby, all I could do was cry. I felt empty. I brought this child into the world. How, when she gets older, do I explain to her that her sister has a father, but she doesn't? It was an empty void that I felt. My oldest child, her father is very loving and supporting, and if nobody ever told Shelby she had a different daddy, she wouldn't know. They're basically both his. Shelby will tell you that she has two dads. She'll ask me, 'Is my dad coming back alive?' And when I was posting photos on Facebook for her birthday, she asked me if I had any photos of her with her dad. I don't think she really understands that he's not coming back. She gets sad about it at times. Whenever she asks if she can see her dad, I take her to the cemetery. Before, I used to get out of the car, but one day she told me, 'Mom you don't have to come, I know where to go.' I try not to let my children see me break down. If I break down in front of them, I tell them I'm just tired and that my head hurts. They never really know the source of my tears. DE: Do you still cry about it? DR: I still cry about it. Especially just recently when we went to court a few weeks ago. I had never seen all three people in the courtroom. Never. I've always seen Matthew there. The other two, because they are witnesses for the prosecution, were subpoenaed to come to court. I wish I had known that before I had come to the court house. They walked up to the front, and the States Attorney gave them the subpoenas for the next court date. I sat there, and it was like at that moment, the room got hot. Extremely hot. And I just started shaking, and I was shaking, and I was shaking, and I was shaking. And I got up. and I walked out, and the minute I walked out was when I broke down. And Matthew's mom ended up coming out. And she gave me a hug and she started crying. And we hugged and we cried together. There's one thing that I've gotten out of all of this is learning to forgive, learning how to not hold everybody accountable just because of association. So I learned to be more open because while I'm hurting, they're hurting too. I learned that, you know, though, yes they come to court. Yes, they're going to be there. Yes, they're going to support their loved one because that's their loved one--they also feel that if he indeed committed the crime, he indeed needs to do the time. I've had conversations with the family in which they wanted me know, yes we're here to support because that's our child and we love him, but we don't condone what took place. DE: So how do you see Matthew? DR: I'm going to say that over time my perspective of Matthew has changed. At first I was very angry. I wanted him to feel the same pain I felt. I hated Matthew. I hated Matthew with every bone and fiber in my body. And I felt like he didn't deserve to live. And over time, it's like, I always knew it was wrong to wish death or harm to somebody. Over time, as my faith grew back, I just want to ask 'why,?' Was it worth it?' Because you went to jail at 18, the prime of your life. I just hope he takes this as a lesson learned. DE: Do you think there's a chance of redemption for him? DR: There's a chance of redemption for everybody. You know, everybody has some good in them. I believe evil is learned. DE: What do you think it would take to stop this gun violence? DR: Everybody should just swallow their pride. You don't have to prove that you're this tough individual. A gun makes you a coward. Walking away is what makes you the bigger person. You are making a decision you have no right to make. You can't play God. And that's what I don't get. How people feel it's okay to play God. Like who gives you that authority to end a person's life? I don't think these kids value life. Theirs or others. You know, a Black man already has three strikes against him. So it's like they may feel, 'I can't survive nowhere. The odds are stacked against me. I won't excel, I won't succeed.' But then there's 1,001 role models right here in this community that at one point in time used to sell drugs, used to be in a gang. They're like, 'Hey, young boy, this isn't what you want to do. This isn't the road you want to take. I've been there. I went to jail. Now look at me. I'm out here. I'm doing better.' The streets have no love for you. They don't. And I feel like oftentimes, a lot of these friends and family members-- the men they love, they teach the men, you're not supposed to cry, you're not supposed to have any emotions, you're not supposed to feel anything. You're supposed to be just tough. And that's what it is. When I was young, I used to think only old people died. Because that's all I knew. Old people died. They got sick and they died. Then when people started getting killed it was like, wait. it's just sad. In 2012, 2013, every few months someone was dying. Friendships was being lost. Families was being destroyed. I feel like a lot of these friends feel like, 'I have to avenge my friend's death.' And I tell everybody that avenging a death is not going to bring the person back. The way to avenge your friend's death is by you doing better. Live your life, that's how you avenge your friends death; by living life, not by picking up a gun and causing pain to somebody. Put the guns down. You don't only end somebody else's life. You end your own life. Even if you're not caught, there's no way you can live day to day without that on your conscience, knowing you destroyed the lives of many. You made a permanent decision to take somebody's life for something temporary, for something that was probably petty, something that could have been resolved. You take a loved one away. a son from his mother, a father from his children, a brother. Before, when I didn't know forgiveness, when I didn't know accountability and acceptance and so forth, I hated everything. I hated everybody. Now I've learned to just love everybody ... in spite of. DE: What do you want for your kids? DR: I want the world for my kids. Whatever their hearts desire. Whatever they want to be in life, to be. I just want my kids to have peace. Drama free.


Next Saturday, December 8, the Evanston Police Department will host a gun-buyback event from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, 1330 Ridge Ave. For every functional, unloaded gun that you turn in, you'll receive $100. The EPD encourages anyone who'd like to get rid of their guns to take advantage of this opportunity. Moms Demand Action Evanston and Dear Evanston will provide hot drinks and holiday treats.

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