REPORTING FROM CHICAGO
Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton said that the last three months have been an excruciatingly painful odyssey that has left her and her husband clinging “just to hold on.”
It was at the end of January she and Nathaniel A. Pendleton Sr. learned that their 15-year-old daughter, Hadiya, had been killed by gunfire in a Chicago playground while trying to avoid an afternoon winter rain. In the months that followed, the death of the high school honors student, who performed with her high school band at President Obama’s inauguration, has cast a national spotlight on urban violence.
Since their daughter’s death in what police say was a case of mistaken identity by gang members, the Pendletons have endured unspeakable heartache. Michelle Obama spoke at Hadiya’s funeral; the president spoke of their daughter in his state of the union address, with the Pendletons sitting in the gallery.
And now, they have found a method of transforming their pain into purpose. They have founded a foundation named after their daughter that is aimed at curbing violence among young people in their city, which has seen more than its share of shootings. Hadiya’s Foundation is now a nonprofit organization that has gained tax-exempt status and seeks to play a hands-on role in the relationship between parents and their teenagers and to provide opportunities for them to avoid the dangers of the streets.
"The intention of the foundation is to reach out to at-risk youth and help them, to serve by providing a proactive approach," Cowley-Pendleton said in an interview with BET.com in the family’s South Side home.
"We will approach the problem by focusing on education, economic development," she said. "The third tier of the program is to reach out to police and schools and park districts to have them share with us any signs of young people who are going astray. The idea is to reach out to the parents so they can in turn reach out to their kids."
She added: "We want to help, to be the voice of the families. To help them know that there is a potential issue with their child."
There is also an education component that will seek to persuade students to stay in school and aim high.
"Hadiya was going to go to college but she can't get there," said Cowley-Pendleton, a computer science graduate from Western Illinois University. "So I'd rather have someone else stay on track and go to college to better themselves."
They have established partnerships with businesses who have agreed to train young people in Chicago and to eventually provide jobs.
"We want to make a difference with this foundation," Nathaniel Pendleton said. "We want to provide scholarships and seminars to help parents identify ways to get more involved in the lives of their kids. We have recognized that a lot of kids are raising themselves."
The foundation will be working alongside other organizations that work with young people in the streets of Chicago, Cowley-Pendleton said. "We don’t see a reason to reinvent the wheel. But we believe we have an important role to play."
For Hadiya’s father, the owner of a catering company, and her mother, a project manager for a major credit bureau, running the new nonprofit organization, it is a far cry from what they expected for themselves in the spring of 2013. But they say they have been compelled by their own tragedy to seek ways to help others avert similar calamities.
"It’s been an absolute roller-coaster ride," Cowley-Pendleton said. "I can’t put into words the emotions that I have experienced. It’s a sickening feeling. We’re trying to create something to hold on to."
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(Photo: Jonathan Hicks/BET)