Cleo Wallace stands on her porch at her home in Toledo. Wallace is moving sometime in the first week of September to a place near Atlanta, in hopes of giving her children a better life.
The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
The boys in the park were loading their guns.
There was no telling — not to the young children watching — what those older boys were going to do or who they were after.
“Ain’t no bullet has a name on it,” their mother, Cleo Wallace, had told them.
The boys with guns ran down Walnut Street. Ms. Wallace’s children ran home.
That night, Ms. Wallace said, a neighborhood boy, Bennie Johnson, 18, was shot in the head. He survived.
Sometimes leaving is the only way.
Two weeks ago, Ms. Wallace, 34, boarded a Georgia-bound plane and, within two hours of arriving, found a place she wanted to call home.
The neighbors in Georgia kept their blinds up and curtains open, families in the 40-home subdivision have lived there for years, her children will be able to ride their bicycles around the block, and Ms. Wallace can trust they’ll be safe.
And it is quiet. A far cry from the family’s North Toledo neighborhood where there’s occasionally errant gunfire, young men with a deadly loyalty to a block and a color, and way too many others only visible on T-shirts that read “Rest In Peace.”
“You never know what’s going to happen,” said Ms. Wallace’s oldest son, Deonta Wallace, 19. “You could be walking and someone drive by shooting at you.”
The gangs and the violence and the negativity are running Ms. Wallace, an independent health aide, out of her hometown.
“I have five boys and I want something better for them than Toledo has to offer,” Ms. Wallace said. “I know there's trouble everywhere, but I know there's more opportunities there for my sons and daughter and I can give them something I never had.”
This week, Ms. Wallace and her children — Deonta, Jamonte, 11, Jahmal, 8, Jaymar, 7, Jhonye, 6, and Je-Bron, 5 — are moving to Georgia; she asked that the community not be identified, but the county’s population is four times smaller than Toledo.
“I feel so blessed,” Ms. Wallace said. “I’ve never lived on that type of level, that type of scale. I know it’s going to make me even a better person just being around that environment.”
Moving elsewhere in northwest Ohio wasn’t an option — Deonta isn’t in a gang, but his friends are and few people are willing to make the distinction.
“The people I hang with, they’re in gangs,” Deonta said. “I ain’t no gang member. I’m affiliated with it, so because the people I hang out with, I can lightweight be a target.”
That, Ms. Wallace said, is terrifying.
“He will be standing there and be the oddball — everybody got on red and then he be the oddball and that be the person always gets their head blown off,” Ms. Wallace said. “Then a week later you on their shirt and they’re still on the corner.”
Ms. Wallace and her children are surrounded by different gangs, close to where the Manor Boyz and Stickney 33 hang out, not far from the Cherry Woodz.
No matter how much she preached and told her children about the dangers of the streets and gang lifestyle, she couldn’t shield them completely.
Starting when she was 12 and continuing for years, Ms. Wallace ran the streets. She knows all too well the chaos they breed.
“For me to still be standing strong, I feel real blessed,” she said. “I used to run the streets like a man, having sex, not respecting myself. I learned to love myself and I didn’t learn that until the age of 34, but I’m blessed that I finally got it.”
One of her sons told Deonta that he is a Jack Boy — a subset of the Manor Boyz, Bloods.
“I say, ‘That’s not good. You don’t want to be a Jack Boy. If you’re a Jack Boy, you’re going to end up dead or in jail,’ ” Deonta said he told his half-brother. “He looks up to older kids and wants to be cool and sweet. When you’re young, all the gang-banging and having fun, smoking and all that, you think that’s cool because it gets you girls and friends, but that’s not what’s happening.”
It had to be Georgia.
Ms. Wallace is an aspiring screenwriter — she’s working on two scripts, both tales of the real-life struggles faced by families living in poor, violent, urban neighborhoods. She chose the Atlanta area because it held promise for her screenwriting aspirations.
One of the scripts is based on the life of the father of five of her children. He’s a former gang member who, after seeing Jamonte at football practice, left the streets for the 50-yard line as a coach.
All this for a woman who said she only grew up five months ago with help and guidance from her friend DaVon Fears, who pushed her to consider her goals and dreams. No one had done that before.
Mr. Fears, who is from the same neighborhood as Ms. Wallace, said it will be important for the city to find ways to bring the good families back to Toledo.
“As Toledo grows, we’ll do something about the gangs,” Mr. Fears said. “Until we clean it up, we’ll always lose some people. It’s a testament to us, what we have to do as a neighborhood, as a city, as a county, to bring these people back because we are losing good people due to the violence, due to the gang activity, the guns, the drugs.”
There were nights, after the children were all asleep and the house was finally quiet, that Ms. Wallace would fall to her knees to cry and pray for something better.
Sitting at her dining room table last week, Ms. Wallace cried again.
“This is the happiest I’ve been in 34 years,” she said pushing tears off of her cheeks. “I did not want to cry. I’m just happy. I’m so used to crying the tears from hurting. It’s not a hurt cry. I’m proud. I’m proud of myself. Ain’t nobody do this. I did this.”
Sometimes leaving is the only way.