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After tragic shooting, triumphant return for Paris Whitehead-Hamilton's aunt

Shenita Williams smiles on her front step after walking into her Bartlett Park home in St. Petersburg on Tuesday. It was painted purple, the favorite color of her niece, Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, who was killed there in a drive-by shooting.

LARA CERRI | Times

Shenita Williams smiles on her front step after walking into her Bartlett Park home in St. Petersburg on Tuesday. It was painted purple, the favorite color of her niece, Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, who was killed there in a drive-by shooting.

ST. PETERSBURG — Shenita Williams didn't want to go home ever again.

More than 50 bullets had riddled her Bartlett Park house in an April 2009 drive-by shooting that claimed the life of her 8-year-old niece, Paris Whitehead-Hamilton. Williams stayed in an apartment in the weeks and the months afterward, racked with guilt.

"I was blaming myself, I was depressed, I was angry," said Williams, 43. "I had to find my way again. I had to find my faith again."

A once-unthinkable journey brought Williams home on Tuesday after major renovations transformed her house from a symbol of despair into one of hope.

"I'm at peace, I'm home," Williams told a crowd of TV crews, reporters, neighborhood leaders and elected officials. "It's great to be home again."

A collaboration between non-profits and government officials made Williams' return to her Bartlett Park home possible. Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay, along with St. Petersburg officials, members of the Tampa Chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry and the Home Depot Foundation donated time and materials for the estimated $80,000 renovation.

The house, left with pockmarks and broken glass everywhere, now has a new hurricane resistant roof and windows, a new energy efficient kitchen and air conditioning. Once an off-white color, the ranch-style house is now bathed in purple, which matched the blouse Williams wore for her return.

Purple was Paris' favorite.

"What began as a tragedy has become a triumph," said Mario Farias, a spokesman for Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay. "Not just for the Williams family, but for the neighborhood and for the city."

Mayor Bill Foster said the home's rebirth was just a beginning, a step toward where the city needs to go.

"This is really a symbol," Foster said. "One life, one house, one neighborhood at a time. This is a start, we have the momentum ... I swear to you, it won't take another tragedy to keep this momentum."

The house is in the district of City Council member Karl Nurse, who said the house is only one part of a larger story.

He said the city has renewed efforts to ward off crime and improve the daily life of residents in Midtown. According to the St. Petersburg Police Department, crime in Midtown is down almost 21 percent compared to this time last year. The overall city average is a 12.6 percent drop.

Plus, Nurse said, police are targeting high profile drug dealers, and the city and Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay are helping to restore and renovate older homes on what was once Preston Avenue S. The city changed the name to Paris in April.

"They've done enough houses on this street that you are beginning to get the other homeowners who have given up to get started again," Nurse said. "If you fight crime and renovate homes like this at the same time, you have a fighting chance."

For community leaders like Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP, the event had a much larger significance than restoring one house.

"A positive has occurred as a result of this tragedy," Tampa said. "It was that nature of that particular death that caused the people to rise up and say, 'Enough is enough.' Today's event was excellent symbolism of the human process that's now in effect."

The day for celebration wouldn't have been possible, however, if Williams hadn't confronted the anger and depression she felt after the shooting. Williams became Paris' caretaker after her mom died in 2006 after sustaining injuries from a fall.

When Paris was killed three years later as she tried to avoid a spray of bullets from a semiautomatic rifle, it left Williams reeling.

"I felt like I let my sister down," Williams said. "I felt like a let down that trust."

It took numerous sessions with counselors to help her come to terms with her feelings. She went back to church, and rediscovered her faith. She even managed to drop her hatred for those involved in the shooting.

"I had to forgive those young men," Williams said. "I had to mean it, not just say it."

A former daycare provider, Williams is now unemployed. Her two sons are grown, at 19 and 23, and she'll be living alone.

By the end of the day, well after the last TV camera was gone and the excitement had died down, Williams sat in a lounge chair in her driveway with a neighbor. She was exhausted, but managed to smile.

"This community needed a change," Williams said. "And it took a child."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

After tragic shooting, triumphant return for Paris Whitehead-Hamilton's aunt 08/31/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 31, 2010 11:07pm]
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