Aaron Willis gets around. You can find him rolling through the hallways of Booker T. Washington High School or along the sidewalks of Overtown. Sometimes his friends push him to Bayside or lift him onto a bus for a trip to the movies.
Willis has re-learned to swim, and how to ride a hand cycle.
He dreams of diving under the sea and through the sky, with a scuba tank or parachute on his back, free of his wheelchair.
His greatest ambition is to play football again.
“I know I’m going to walk,” he said. “I just don’t know when.”
Willis, 16, still is adjusting to a life of compromised mobility one year after he was paralyzed by a bullet that severed his spine.
When he came home from the hospital, improvements were made to the family’s small Miami apartment so that the kitchen and bathroom are wheelchair-accessible. But they could use new linens for Willis’ hospital bed and their queen-size bed; new bathroom towels, and a new sofa. Willis wishes for a comfortable recliner for his father and an Oregon Ducks jacket for himself.
The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which nominated Willis for the Miami Herald’s annual Wish Book campaign, believes his progress toward independence also would be accelerated if he had financial support for advanced physical therapy and Special Transportation Service (STS) vouchers.
The biggest life-changer would be a car with detachable hand controls for Willis so they could reduce their dependency on public transportation.
Willis’ life was forever changed when he was shot in the back by an unknown gunman in a passing car while riding his bike home near the corner of Northwest 28thStreet and First Avenue on the evening of Dec. 19, 2012.
“I remember hearing a sound like firecrackers and falling off my bike,” Willis said. “I tried to get up but I couldn’t feel my legs anymore.”
The bullet shattered Willis’ T-10 vertebra, punctured a lung and lodged in his left shoulder, where it remains. A white Nissan Maxima sped away. Police have no new clues in a cold case of mistaken identity or random cruelty.
“There is nobody to ask, ‘Why?’” said Sammie Willis, Aaron’s father. “A foolish, senseless act and no one held accountable. My sweet boy always did everything right and was never in trouble, yet he’s the one being punished.”
Willis spent five weeks at Jackson Memorial Hospital, first in intensive care, later in rehab.
“I had to learn how to put on my clothes, get in and out of bed and use the wheelchair,” he said. “I tried to do stuff on my own and I’d fall down, get back up, fall down, start over.”
Friends filled up his room. Teachers came to visit, as did his principal William Aristide and Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.
“I never really had time to get depressed,” he said.
But Willis confessed he has suffered through periods of despair and frustration.
“He would kick the wheelchair over, throw things against the wall,” said Sammie Willis, whose own knee and back problems force him to use a wheelchair when he has to walk more than a few yards. “I felt his pain. It wasn’t sympathy. Aaron didn’t want sympathy. It was empathy.”
He returned home and eventually to school, where he is an honors student, yet everything was altered for Willis, who had always been a boy on the move. His bedroom is filled with football trophies from his years playing for the Overtown Rattlers. His hope was to play for the No. 1-ranked Booker T. Tornadoes and the University of Oregon Ducks. Instead, he wheels over to Gibson Park to watch practices. And he’s always in the stands for home games.
“At three months old, he was already climbing out of the bed; at five months he was trying to pull himself up to a window, and at eight months he started walking,” recalled Willis’ mother, Katherine Beaton. “You couldn’t slow him down.”
Willis has shown a similar unstoppable will in his recovery, according to his physical therapist Jill Caldwell. His quiet demeanor belies a burning desire to conquer challenges.
He walked for 30 minutes on a recent Wednesday during his session at Jackson using Reciprocal Gait Orthotic braces and a rolling walker.
“I’ve never seen anybody do that before,” Caldwell said. “It really helps his cardiovascular system, his arm and abdominal strength. He’s been ahead of the game. He was an athlete and he’s got that drive in him.”
Willis humbly recounts how when he and a group of paraplegics and quadriplegics swam with dolphins in Islamorada, he was speediest.
“They swam faster with me than with anybody else,” he said. “You hold onto the dorsal fin and they can sense what speed you can handle.”
He has met a U.S. Paralympic team swimmer who has encouraged him to pursue the sport.
Caldwell, who is known as Willis’ “other mom,” predicts college for him.
“Some of our patients were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a spinal cord injury gives them a reason to drop out of school,” she said. “Aaron was on a good path then and he’s determined to stay on it. It’s hard enough being a teenager, but being a teenager in a wheelchair can really put you in a funk. Aaron has hope that he’ll get better, and that hope keeps him going.”
Caldwell was invited to Willis’ recent 16th birthday party, and was astonished at the number of friends surrounding him. Willis also is close to his mother, who gave up her waitress job to care for him; his father, a former youth counselor at the Dade State Attorney’s office and former owner of the Ribs by Willis barbeque joint in Richmond Heights, and his older brother Pierre, who lives in Tallahassee and serves in the Marine Reserves.
“Thanks to the power of love we’ve been able to accomplish a lot with almost nothing,” Sammie Willis said.
In a corner of their apartment building’s parking lot, Willis and his parents have created a nativity scene using dolls, stuffed animals, an angel, a lamp and twinkling Christmas lights. It brightens up the whole block.
“You do the best with what you have,” Sammie Willis said, in his booming voice. “Just because you have to do something differently doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”