Nearly five years ago, I met a fatherless 12-year-old boy when I was asked by my friend Maryam Muhammad, his teacher, to speak at her fifth-grade class.
He asked if I knew Lee Roy Selmon. I explained that, "Yes, we were good friends." He went on to tell me how Lee Roy had been his mentor but that, "he died."
I was struck by his words because the same evening, I had been asked to conduct the first University of South Florida Athletic Hall of Fame installation in memory of Lee Roy. How was it that I met this young man? Was Lee Roy guiding me?
I told him I would be his mentor. Over the years, we met at our restaurants. We talked about hopes and dreams, working hard to be successful, finding a career. We attended USF basketball and football games.
Last Saturday night, that young man — Tee'on Milledge — was murdered at the Tampa Park Apartments housing complex where he was celebrating the birthday of a 9-year-old with family and friends. It seems a group of young teenagers approached the party. From my understanding, the teenagers got into an argument then opened fire — wounding two and killing my friend Tee'on.
What is happening to our society? How have we come to this situation where murder is the result of a birthday party disagreement?
I do believe we can change a person's life by giving them hope, but this tragedy has me wondering about many things. Maybe some things are just not meant for me to understand.
As I vacation through the South Pacific, I am trying to understand my life's purpose. Sometimes the waters have been calm and the sailing smooth. Other times, the waves have been rough and the ship rocked. We never know which conditions we will face. All we can do is to ride out the rough seas and make sure we can swim.
I am grateful that God blessed me to know this young man so I could help him feel as if he had a chance despite his difficult life. Like me, he suffered in school with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. About a month ago, he told me he was trying hard in school so he could be an electrician, but he was struggling with math.
Tee'on, I am sorry I could not save you. I'm sure Lee Roy was at the gates of heaven to welcome you home where you can finally find peace. May you rest eternally until we meet again.
Tee'on's story needs to be told. There are too many other young children who are in the same situation. We need to give them hope, we need to give them guidance, we need to support their dreams.
Part of the reason for my wanting to create a culinary school is to help those children in need of building their self confidence and self esteem. Tee'on had wanted to be part of it. His death only fires me up more to make a difference in the lives of those who are deserving of help.
Richard Gonzmart of Tampa is president of the Columbia Restaurant Group.