The story of the Sims family: Part I

San Francisco Chronicle | August 26, 2003

By Leslie Guttman

Spoon was a lanky, 17-year-old gang-banger making $800 a day selling drugs at the former Kennedy Manor project in Richmond when he came to the Barbara Alexander Academy. He was full of anger, sullen as a thundercloud.

Julia was 15 when she arrived at the school door. An alcoholic and severely depressed, she was in danger of a life of seamless failure.

Over the next two years, both of them would transform their lives as dramatically as a landscape goes from drought to bloom.

Spoon and Julia’s metamorphosis was largely due to the efforts of the Sims family and their tiny charter school in Richmond’s Iron Triangle. The school was a last-chance stop for troubled kids. It was started two years ago by five members of the Simses, who grew up in Richmond. Melita Sims-Agbabiaka and her siblings saw the area and its surroundings as stained with the blood of kids caught up in gang violence. (This year alone, there have been 25 homicides in Richmond, with 17 of the victims under 25 years old.)

But their charter was revoked in early July by the West Contra Costa Unified School District, in part because of what the board called serious financial instability.

While the Simses are proud of Spoon and Julia, they say there are countless kids still in danger from the beckoning violence of the streets — boys destined to become "O.G.s" — street slang for old gangsters, and girls already working "ho row."

Kimiko Kimio Wilson, for example, an 18-year-old who briefly attended the school, sits in jail, charged with a triple shooting that left a 16-year-old and a 22-year-old dead in June in the Triangle. Thomas Jefferson, a 19-year-old Barbara Alexander Academy student, is in jail on carjacking charges. In a Richmond cemetery lies Robert Freeman, a 16-year-old student killed by Richmond police who thought his toy gun was real.

"They say a man without hope is a dangerous man," Sims-Agbabiaka, director of the school, told a group of parents who assembled earlier this month. The Simses were hoping to drum up supporters to attend the Contra Costa County Board of Education meeting Wednesday in Pleasant Hill. In what might turn out to be their final attempt to save their school, the Simses have petitioned the board to sponsor their charter.

"I am not afraid to be hopeful," Abigal Evelyn, Sims-Agbabiaka’s sister, told the small group of parents at the meeting. "Tell the board about your dreams for your (children) . . . And that you have people to back up those dreams."

Spoon’s mom, Rosalind, saw getting him into the Barbara Alexander Academy as his last shot. Spoon had been kicked out of every other school. (Spoon, Julia and their families asked that their last names not be used.)

Rosalind was terrified she’d get a call late at night asking her to come down to the morgue to identify his body.

Spoon tolerated the school at first. His decisive moment came after two incidents. He was about to get into a fight with another kid when Absylom Sims, his English teacher, said: "Just walk away. Don’t say a word. Just walk away."

For the first time in his life, Spoon did.

Then, his business partner was killed on the streets, shot in the back in a turf war. With his mom sitting with him at the kitchen table begging him not to end up in a casket before her, he made his choice to go straight.

By the time he was ready to graduate, at 19, Spoon had decided, with the school’s guidance, to be a sound engineer. He knew he needed a job in the meantime, but to do so, he would have to learn how to talk in the world outside his own. At his first, humiliating job interview ever, at Best Buy, he’d given the interviewer that street salutation for cousin — "cuz." He wished he hadn’t gotten a tattoo on his

left arm when he was 13 that said "MANOR."

At year’s end, Abigal Evelyn, a teacher at the school, still thought Spoon and his friends might be a gang, but Spoon denied it. She also thought he might already have fathered a child because she saw him pushing a stroller downtown one day. It was his little niece. Spoon was struggling to change the perceptions people had of him, and most of all, those he had of himself. Sometimes, that was scarier than anything he’d encountered in the streets.

Julia had been living by herself for seven months in her family’s Richmond home. At that time, her mom, a speed addict, was in jail, and her brother was in the Air Force. Julia had stopped going to school and partied every day with her boyfriend. She had been drinking since she was 6, born into it like her parents. Hennessey, Budweiser, MG, the cans and bottles were everywhere.

One morning, she woke up with a bad taste in her mouth and looked around: at the filthy house, the empties, the cigarettes inside half-empty glasses.

Julia turned to her boyfriend.

"Let’s stop all this," she said.

Shortly afterward, her mom, Delia, got out of jail and cleaned up, terrified by how close she had come to a third strike and prison for life. Delia and her own mother brought Julia to the academy, hoping the Sims could guide her. Her report card reflected her brief, scattershot time back in public school: It was full of F’s and incompletes.

The Simses took it slow. They broke down algebra for her. They helped her to stop smoking; it had been a pack a day for five years. They wanted her belief in herself to be as strong as bedrock, and after many months, it was. She reclaimed her dream to become a vet. Her report card last June was straight A’s. Some students called her Queen Julia, and she proudly accepted the title.

The audience at the graduation ceremony at the Courtyard Marriott Richmond conference room clutched balloons and flowers, and digital and video cameras. It was June 10, 2003 — about a month before the Sims family had their charter revoked.

Among the graduating seniors in the front row was Spoon. In the audience was Julia.

A phalanx of Simses in caps and gowns were at front: Sims-Agbabiaka and the siblings with whom she started the school — Elisabeth Whitson, Abigal Evelyn and Absylom and Israel Sims. At the ceremony, too, were Ramona Sims — Israel’s wife — and Kevin Whitson — Elisabeth’s husband — also staff members.

One of the first awards was given to Spoon — the Kennedy Award for his leadership potential. Watching him on the small, spotlit stage from the audience full of kids who shouted his name, his mother, Rosalind, was proud. She had pushed hard for this moment. But then she heard Evelyn call her up to the stage to give her one of the academy’s Bridge Awards. Rosalind was 36 but looked far younger, even with five kids, Spoon the oldest. Standing on the small stage in front of Evelyn, her round face shy and nervous, Rosalind almost looked like one of the students.

"I understand and you understand that you are the bridge for your children to cross," Evelyn told Rosalind. "You have helped one and you have many more to go. And this is an acknowledgment of what you have done . . ."

On the award was a quote by Oprah Winfrey: "I am where I am because of the bridges I have crossed: Sojourner Truth was a bridge. Harriet Tubman was a bridge. Ida B. Wells was a bridge. Madame C.J. Walker was a bridge. Fanny Lou Hamer was a bridge."

Soon, Julia was called to the stage. She stood before Evelyn and glowed. At 17, she was radiant, with long, shiny brown hair.

She was awarded a $1,000 governor’s scholarship for her scores on the state’s yearly standardized tests, which were in the top 10 percent in her grade at the academy.

As Sims-Agbabiaka handed the seniors their diplomas, she felt a sense of relief impossible to explain. The school was still open, and 12 young people were launched into the world who might never have been.

Earlier in the evening, one of the graduation speakers, Glenda Bradley, a local Bank of America official, advised the seniors to follow Duke Ellington’s two rules for life:

Rule No. 1: Never quit.

Rule No. 2: Always, don’t forget Rule No. 1.

Sims-Agbabiaka knew exactly what Ellington meant.

The day after graduation, happiness hung over the school like a new moon, illuminating everyone. But the exhilaration was short. By the end of the week, on the eve of the last day of the school year, the Sims family found out that one of their students was dead.

Robert Freeman was a charismatic junior from South Richmond who was popular with everyone, especially the girls who liked to braid his wavy, chocolate-brown hair. He was always well-groomed and loved to sing and rap with the kids who surrounded the old, scuffed-up piano in Evelyn’s classroom.

Freeman was killed June 12 in Richmond by police in an undercover sting devised to catch a robber who had been holding up food delivery workers.

At first, Richmond police said Freeman was shot after he demanded money and pointed a gun (later found to be plastic) at a decoy officer dressed as a pizza man.

Later, authorities changed the story, describing a scenario where Freeman was shot first as he threatened the decoy officer and then as he ran away. Richmond police Capt. Lori Ritter said officers witnessing Freeman threaten the decoy officer saw Freeman’s gun but didn’t know it was fake. In the dark, they saw the decoy’s muzzle flash and heard shots. Believing there was an exchange of gunfire, they shot Freeman.

Neighbors wondered why there was so much gunfire. Ritter said Freeman spun around as he ran away, and police fired again because they thought he would shoot. Many in Richmond are angry, questioning the events and the sensibility of the sting. An investigation is continuing, with results from a coroner’s inquest expected early next month.

The day of Robert’s funeral — June 18 — was sunny and sweet with the smells of early summer: jasmine and newly mown grass. It was a betrayal of a day — one for celebrating life, not mourning a 16-year-old’s death.

Outside Kingdom and Baptist Church in Richmond stood Sims-Agbabiaka, Israel Sims and Elizabeth Whitson, and the two sisters’ kids. The church was overflowing, and they couldn’t get in. Teens in white T-shirts with Freeman’s picture on the front milled around outside.

Sims-Agbabiaka and the others went around to the back of the church to view the funeral through the minister’s small office. It was warm inside, and mourners fanned Freeman’s mother in the front pew of the sanctuary.

The casket before her was gray metal with a small picture of hands in prayer on each corner. Flower arrangements spanned the front of the church, one in the shape of the letter "C" made up of white carnations and red roses, sent over by the boys from Richmond’s Crescent Park neighborhood.

The Rev. James Harris, of the North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church, was among the speakers. He looked at the five teens a few birthdays away from manhood sitting in the front pew opposite Freeman’s family. All of them wore plain, white T-shirts with white chrysanthemums pinned to them. They looked nervous as Harris stared them down.

"Robert is gone," Harris said, "but you young men have a chance to go on. Get an education . . . The police aren’t afraid of you. They don’t mind you killing each other. But they realize that if you don’t mind killing each other, you won’t mind killing them. . . ."

In the pew, the first boy’s knees started to tremble and then began shaking up and down.

Harris looked down at all of them and boomed: "Education! Education! Education!"