LeVar Lawrence has been paralyzed ever since he was shot in the neck in a dispute over a game of dice 14 years ago.
Now, he lives at Coler, a municipally operated nursing home and rehabilitation center on Roosevelt Island, where he depends on daily help from staff for basic needs.
“I didn’t want to live a life like this,” Lawrence said. “I can’t move, I can’t do nothing for myself. To be laying there sometimes and your face itch or something, flies on your face and you can’t reach it, that’s torture.”
But Lawrence says what gives him purpose is a non-profit program for gun violence survivors called Open Doors.
It provides a support group, mentorship, and resources for survivors of gun violence to pursue artistic expression. The organizers created a writing workshop to teach expression through poetry and the spoken word. It's helped Lawrence share the private thoughts he had during the early days of his recovery as he was adjusting to news that he’d never walk again.
“I’m just expressing myself,” Lawrence said. “I just want them to listen to my words and maybe take a part of that with them.”
In one poem, Lawrence writes, “There be days that I wish I got shot in my head. Instead, I’m stuck in a hospital bed.”
The group of mostly men of color meet regularly to workshop their writing and practice performing. Members of the group often say that they previously lived risky lives that exposed them to violence. They believed they were destined for either prison or death; they did not expect a life confined to a wheelchair.
But by supporting one another, the men have found a cathartic outlet. Lawrence and other members hope sharing their stories will inspire compassion and, most importantly, deter young New Yorkers from repeating their mistakes. Lawrence writes of his mission in one of his poetic works, “Then looking up in the sky asking God why did he save and didn’t just let me die. At that moment, he spoke to me and said, ‘You’re special to me, there’s more for you in store. Just wait and you’ll see.’”