Her name is Zhariya Williams, but everybody calls her Buddha.
“I was a fat baby with fat cheeks and a fat stomach,” Williams said.
She’s so skinny now she gets teased about her “toothpick legs,” but the nickname stuck. Every day, the 8-year-old looks more and more like her late mother — same deep eyes, same conspiratorial smile.
“I have a duplicate of her mother,” said Williams’ grandmother, Sharron Ladson. “She’s got her mom’s ways, sometimes so much so that I’m thinking, ‘Hey, Angie’s here.’”
Williams hears the comparisons often and they make her proud, and sad, too. Her mother, Angelese Ladson, was killed June 26, 2012, in a drive-by shooting in Miami Gardens. She was 29, and 81/2 months pregnant with her second child.
Williams will recite Christmas poems at her church as she does every year, but for the third Christmas in a row, and her third Dec. 23 birthday in a row, her mother won’t be there to celebrate. And when Williams sings carols with the church youth choir, led by her grandmother, Angelese won’t be there to sing along.
“It’s a very difficult time of year,” said Williams’ grandfather, Gerard. “But we’ll go to the gravesite and wish Angie a merry Christmas.”
Sitting on the sofa near her two pet goldfish, wearing a pink warmup suit, Williams recalled how she enjoyed reading books with her mother and playing dress-up. Now she’s being raised by her grandparents, Angelese’s parents.
“To me, it’s like it just happened yesterday,” Sharron Ladson said. “It’s an open wound for us and the community because these killers are still walking around. Gun violence is an epidemic. I grew up in Miami Gardens and it was a peaceful, friendly place. Seems like someone gets shot almost daily these days. We have to find a way to take guns out of the hands of young men who are irresponsible and unremorseful.”
Angelese and her friend, Krystal Tillman — who was injured in the shooting — were standing on the front porch of Angelese’s boyfriend’s house when a silver Toyota Camry pulled up, two men got out of the car and opened fire, police said. Angelese was shot in the neck and died at the scene. She was rushed to Ryder Trauma Center where doctors tried to save her baby, but could not.
Angelese left bloodstains on a box that contained a new baby stroller.
The day of her baby shower became the day of her funeral. The baby boy was wrapped in a blue blanket and placed in his mother’s arms in the casket. They were buried together.
“We also lost our grandson in the process,” Sharron Ladson said. “We lost two members of the family that night. I saw the baby in the hospital. She wanted a little boy.”
“Why not another little girl?” Williams asked.
“She wanted you to have a brother,” Sharron said.
Angelese, who was studying to become a radio or TV broadcaster, was on maternity leave from her job as a customer-service agent for AT&T. Her murder remains unsolved.
Gerard Ladson, a chef at the Eden Roc hotel in Miami Beach, finds himself dwelling on the senselessness of the crime. He said his “heart beats hard” when he hears a car in the street, and he tends to be overprotective and nervous.
“People ask me if I feel better,” he said. “Honestly, you never feel better. Sometimes I just scream when I’m in my car.”
Williams fills the emptiness in the house. She likes working on science projects, like the volcano she recently constructed. She likes to watch the Disney Channel and Miami Dolphins and Heat games with her grandfather. She likes to cook with him and go swimming or to Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City with her grandmother, who is a Sunday school teacher and an administrative assistant in the anesthesiology department at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“They make me happy,” Williams said.
After her mother died, Williams suffered from seizures and anxiety, but she and her grandparents got through the dark period with help from an organization called Restore Joy and Trust, which was co-founded by Denise Brown and two other women who lost their sons — all friends — in drive-by shootings. In the past two years, RJT has provided support to 40 families whose children were killed with grief counseling, field trips and a reading program.
“You feel hopeless and alone, you’re constantly asking why and you often get no closure,” Brown said. “We want to reach out and offer comfort, especially to young kids, and redirect them so they don’t become victims or perpetrators.”
RJT is serving a growing need, she said.
“Over Thanksgiving, I got three calls,” she said. “We’ve been busy. Usually July is our busiest month, but the situation seems to be worsening.”
Williams has dreams of becoming a doctor or nurse, just like her mother encouraged her to dream. But she could really use a desktop computer and printer from Wish Book readers in order to keep up with her schoolwork. Her grandparents work long hours and don’t always have time to take her to the library.
On the computer, Williams can check her mother’s Facebook page, where people still leave messages of love and hope for Angelese, who was known for her gregarious personality.
“The phone used to ring constantly,” Sharron Ladson said. “It’s more quiet now, but we are thankful we have Zhariya — our little Buddha — to keep us smiling.”
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year.
▪ To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.
▪ To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444.
▪ 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 Miami Herald.com/wishbook