Devontae Hemans doesn’t ever seem to stop smiling. The 18-year-old is known for his constant gap-toothed grin, an expression that emanates from his zest for life.
The Miami Central High School student loves to go to school, where his teacher says he’s a jolly young man with a positive attitude in his special needs classroom. He’s always talking about his family, with whom he is very close.
He has a big appetite for Cheesecake Factory, which is sometimes a destination for his class’s community-based-instruction trips. But Taco Bell is fine, too.
He loves to go bowling, and he enjoys competing in the Special Olympics, where he’s an ace in track and field.
Hemans’ intellectual disability does not detract from the joy of everyday life. But on the evening of Oct. 3, one bullet nearly changed everything.
While his sister Bre’yonna Williams was inside cooking dinner, Hemans stepped outside his Gladeview apartment to sit on the porch.
“That’s when I heard ‘pow pow pow,’ ” Williams said later. “I thought someone was doing fireworks outside.”
Hemans walked back into the apartment holding his left arm, blood soaking the sleeve of his shirt. Bre’yonna lifted the sleeve to see the wound on his upper arm. It was a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting that also injured three others shortly after a candelight vigil was held nearby for the victim of a fatal shooting just one week earlier.
“I broke down,” said Latrese Williams, thinking back to the night she comforted her injured son. Hemans would recover, but the bullet remains embedded in his arm, lodged in tissue where doctors say it would be more harmful to probe than to just wait and let the bullet work its way to the surface.
The bullet left a quarter-sized scar just below his left shoulder, but the deeper wound is the fear her family members now have of leaving their home. Hemans, his mother, sister and uncle had just moved to the apartment in the Lincoln Fields complex a month before the shooting. They haven’t felt comfortable being outside ever since that night.
“Nobody should feel afraid to walk out of their door,” Latrese Williams said, “day or night.”
She works at an after-school program for the local Young Women’s Christian Association and does what she can to maintain their household. Their home is austere, with a few chairs, a small desk for a computer, and air mattresses for beds. There’s no table to comfortably hold a family dinner, no couch where they can enjoy movies together.
Still, they find joy in making a home together. Latrese Williams likes to put on gospel music, even if her daughter would rather hear Janet Jackson or Jennifer Lopez. Hemans giggles just at the thought of those “Madea” comedies, especially since their most recent family trip to the theater to see “Boo 2! A Madea Halloween.”
“It’s a funny movie,” he said, chuckling through that signature smile.
A cornerstone of this home is Hemans’ spirit. His relentless can-do attitude is a beacon for his tight-knit family, a major reason why he was nominated for the Miami Herald Wish Book by community nonprofit Hope for Miami. Hemans attends an after-school program run by the organization.
Nervous about leaving the house, Hemans and his family wish to improve life within its walls. They need furniture for the living room, dining room and three bedrooms, and games to play inside. Hemans would also like a laptop computer and television, for both entertainment and education. He occasionally has to miss school for doctor’s appointments and wants to be able to review missed lessons from home.
“When he does miss, he gets upset,” said Carolyn Collins, his doting teacher at Miami Central High School. “I got to tell him, ‘Your health comes first!’ ”
Collins has taught Hemans for the past four years, and they are both lamenting their upcoming goodbye. Next year, Hemans will enter a four-year transition program that will teach him how to live on his own and usher him into adulthood.
“You’re too smart to stay with me, Devontae,” she told him recently. “I’m gonna miss you so much.”
They won’t be far from each other, though. Same school, different classroom. He’s promised to visit.
She expects one more part of the daily routine to remain unchanged.
“He just smiles and laughs all day long,” she said.
How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. (The most requested items are laptops and tablets for school, furniture, and accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email email@example.com. (The most requested items are laptops and tablets for school, furniture, and accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.