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Onetime Gang Girl Heading to College

Posted Jun 8, 2007 12:44 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Even Dee Johnson doesn't know exactly why she was able to rise above a chaotic childhood of poverty and neglect and, with the help of family members, counselors and teachers, largely leave behind the Chicago gang lifestyle she had been drawn into and graduate from a suburban high school. But the 19-year-old says a turning point was the murder of a close friend in 2005, shot to death in a car in broad daylight, in what police describe as a gang- or drug-related slaying.

Although she had been devastated earlier by a brother's death in an involuntary manslaughter and her father's suicide (Johnson discovered the body), the murder of longtime friend Michael Moore "was a wake-up call like none other," reports the Chicago Tribune. "Johnson had seen plenty of people go to jail, but Moore was the first friend to be killed. It seemed like a punishment for her own sins, and she reasoned that if she changed her ways for good, the pain might stop."

Says Johnson: "I felt like if I surround myself with different people, maybe they won't leave me. Maybe they wouldn't die or nothing like that. Maybe if I do something different, God would quit taking these people away from me."

Although it was a day-to-day struggle, Johnson started attending school regularly and studying, attending an extra year in order to graduate. Taken in by a newly married 25-year-old sister and her husband, she not only had a safe, supportive place to live but could count on basics like having the school supplies she needed to get her homework done. That hadn't been true at various times earlier in her life, the Tribune reports. Although she still is close to some members, she has distanced herself from the Southeast Side gang she used to hang out with.

High points of the past year for Johnson include being nominated as homecoming queen last fall and graduating from West Aurora High School on Tuesday. Now she hopes to go to community college in downstate Illinois and study psychology or child development. "Her father and brother would have been proud," says an aunt who attended her graduation. "She had some hard times, but this is like a new beginning for her."

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