CHICAGO — A West Side activist who was paralyzed in a shooting thinks he may one day walk again after strangers donated thousands to buy him a new wheelchair.
Tree Brown, an organizer with anti-violence group GoodKids MadCity, has been using the same badly broken wheelchair for six years. The wheelchair made it difficult for him to travel and caused him extreme pain, he said, but last week GoodKids MadCity started a fundraiser to buy Brown a new wheelchair.
The fundraiser quickly surpassed its goal of $4,500 on Monday and has now raised more than $5,000.
“It’s overwhelming,” Brown said. “I thought we weren’t gonna make it. … We reached the goal so quick! It was like, ‘Man, this is amazing.'”
The wheelchair will be adjustable, meaning Brown can sit or stand in it. Standing will be key to his recovery, he said, and it’ll help with his breathing and will alleviate the constant, agonizing pain he feels in his legs.
The standup chair may even help Brown be able to walk again one day, he said.
“You all helped me get on the road back to walking,” Brown said. “It’s bigger than just the chair, really; it’s about having me be out of this pain. [Walking is] why I’m so excited. I’m so ready to get it.”
Laughing, he added, “I’m gonna be standing up a lot.”
Brown got help from others, too: An organization called Devices 4 the Disabled learned about Brown’s situation and reached out to him to provide him with a free basic wheelchair. Someone will come to measure him for that wheelchair soon, Brown said.
Devices 4 the Disabled might be able to provide other medical devices Brown’s needed, he said, and since learning about the group this week he’s already been telling other friends with disabilities about how they can reach out for help, too.
Brown said he is thankful for the support of those who donated to campaign.
“It really inspired me and helped me. It changed my life,” he said. “This is like a dream.”
‘It’s Very Saddening’
Brown has had to use a wheelchair since he was shot in July 2012. Then a teenager, he was riding in a car with friends at 2 a.m. when someone shot at their car. Brown was hit in his back; none of the other four boys in the car was wounded, though all had bullet holes through their headrests, he said.
The wound paralyzed Brown from the abdomen down, he said. Years later, he still feels constant, agonizing pain in his legs. The bullet is still lodged in his back, and though he wants it removed because of the health risks it can pose, he has been told complications could arise during the surgery.
“It’s either live with it and possibly die or possibly die getting it taken out,” he said.
Brown was also troubled by the way he was treated by investigators after the shooting. He was in the hospital, still freshly wounded, when police questioned him about what had happened, he said. He was unable to tell them much because he hadn’t seen the shooter.
Brown felt like the officers wrote him off, thinking he was refusing to “snitch” and asking him if he was shot because he was a gang member traveling in rival territory to stir up trouble, he said. But, at most, Brown was only ever affiliated with people in gangs, he said, explaining that in his neighborhood you could either be affiliated with a gang or be a victim of one.
And though Brown has been suicidal at times following the shooting, it ultimately transformed his life.
Brown became active in Black Lives Matter Chicago and then joined GoodKids MadCity, a group of young Chicagoans who advocate for more resources for West and South side communities and an end to violence. He is one of the “most dedicated, determined and continuously generous members” of the group, organizers wrote on GoFundMe.
A part of the group for three years, Brown works on gun violence prevention and participates in peace circles, healing corners, training people on how to respond to gunfire and feeding the community, among other things.
Brown wants to change the narrative around shootings and help people understand many survivors aren’t getting the psychological help they need, which can lead to more violence when survivors seek revenge.
“I try to be a part of [the volunteer work] as much as possible, as far as I physically can,” Brown said.
But it’s difficult at times for Brown to participate in that volunteer work because of his wheelchair. He was told he should replace his wheelchair every four years, he said, but he’s had his for six.
The wheelchair’s problems are endless, Brown said. He’s outgrown it and it’s too small, the armrests have broken off, the tires are worn down on the main wheels, the back is broken so it reclines more than it should and the smaller wheels at the front are damaged and make it hard to move on certain surfaces.
The wheelchair causes Brown serious pain, he said, and it’s so small that he has to “ball up” his body to fit and it’s uncomfortable. The pain and discomfort add to his stress.
“It’s very draining of my energy and my peace of mind,” he said. “Living with an ailment … you gotta find small things.
“The little things, like having a smooth-running wheelchair … when I don’t [have that], and I’m having problems and it’s difficult and there’s a lot of stress and frustration in my life … it’s very saddening.”
Brown doesn’t often ask for help, he said, but it was “special” to know his fellow organizers at GoodKids MadCity were trying to help him and were recognizing his character.
“For them to recognize my character and speak to that and also try to get me help was very special,” Brown said. “It uplifted me, honestly, because I was in a very bad place.
“… The people who are donating are actually saving a life in one way or another, and they’re keeping me with hope in society because for a while I did think that no one really cared — especially that no one cared about activists.”
Do stories like this matter to you? Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.