Vernard Allen Jr. looks like a regular 14-year-old kid, which he is. But he’s also a personification of the saddest, cruelest side of South Florida — the indiscriminate criminal violence that leaves scars that stretch through multiple generations. His father and his grandmother were both murdered before he was born.
“It’s not like I think about it every day,” says Vernard in a measured tone, doodling with one of colored pencils that he uses to make sketches nearly round the clock. “But I know what happened. I know.” And he quickly changes the subject to his drawings.
“I’m all right,” he says of his sketching ability. “I can draw things pretty well. But I can’t draw people yet... It’s the structure of the face, the shape of the face, that gives me trouble. I can draw eyes and noses and stuff. But the shape of the face gives me trouble.”
Lots of little kids draw and color things, of course. But the great-aunt who has raised Vernard nearly since his birth thinks his growing interest in art (he has joined his high school band, and he has displayed some surprising instinct for portrait photography using friends’ cell phones) signifies something more.
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“He says not having a dad to go to father-and-son days at school activities doesn’t bother him,” says Karen Wade, a Miami-Dade administrative worker who lives in the North River Drive neighborhood. “But I see him. I see a kind of a look and I know he’s thinking about it. He calls my husband [Charles] Papa, and his uncles help as much as they can, but I see him and I know....
“And I think the drawing and the other things, they take his mind off of it.”
As the Miami Herald’s 2018 Wish Book campaign gets underway, Vernard is hoping it might bring him some art supplies: the colored pencils and markers he uses to draw, as well as sketch pads and an easel to mount them on. He also longs for a laptop computer so he could experiment with design programs.
Wade was not always exactly enthusiastic about Vernard’s artistic ventures.
“He’d paint, and make the most awful messes!” she recalls. “Paint everywhere! Paint all over the house! And I said, no more painting. But what he’s doing now is a lot more serious. And a lot less messy, too.”
Even the painting didn’t bother her that much. Wade’s family has known too much genuine tragedy to be overly concerned about the occasional odd splash of blue paint on a table.
It started in 1999, when Wade’s 37-year-old sister Myrna Allen left her house to drop a friend at work and never came back. The next year, a jogger found her strangled body out in the Everglades. Police suspected a jilted lover of the crime, but couldn’t find enough evidence to make the charge stick.
Wade took in her sister’s three youngest children, including the one who these days everybody remembers as Vernard Sr., then just 13. Four years later, visiting his father in the rough-and-tumble Liberty Square neighborhood, Vernard Sr. got caught in the middle of a feud between neighbors that reeled out of control and ended with him being fatally shot in the stomach.
He left behind a pregnant 15-year-old girl who, several months later, gave birth to Vernard Jr. After a murky, troubled period of domestic discord and dysfunctional foster homes, a judge gave custody of the boy to Wade, where he has stayed ever since.
“I had my first baby in 1975,” she says with a laugh. “I never dreamed I’d still be raising a child 43 years later. Seven of them I’ve raised! But Vernard is the last one. My husband is pretty clear about that.”
Vernard doesn’t remember any of the sketchy parts of his childhood and just shrugs at any suggestion that they had any lasting psychological effect. He paints and takes pictures because “it’s fun,” he says, and took up the bass drum in Miami Central High’s marching band because “it looked easy.” (Playing it was; lugging it around the field while marching, a little bit less so. He’s developing an interest the cymbals.)
In the boundlessly eclectic way of kids, Vernard says he might like to be a photographer someday but also possibly a neurosurgeon. Don’t laugh at the latter; with the aid of medical books obtained for him by his family, he can already talk knowledgeably about ependymal cells — you know, the ones located in the choroid plexuses of the ventricles of the brain — and cerebrospinal fluid.
But his chatty discussions of the future sometimes end abruptly and unexpectedly, lapsing into long, inscrutable silences where there is no clue to what he might be thinking. Except for the last of his Wishbook hopes -- a nice frame for a picture of his father.
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 wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook