Overcoming Tragedy

Four days earlier, Jasmine Vanderhorst had turned 19.

Four days earlier, she had been among the top Florida A&M students.

Four days earlier, she had an older brother who admired her. And then he was murdered.

Vanderhorst’s life has never been the same.

The young industrial engineering student remembers clearly the night of July 19, 2010, when detectives phoned trying to reach her mother. It was about 1:12 a.m. when she first heard that her brother, Leo, had been shot.

Desperate for answers and far from her Louisiana home, Vanderhorst called her mother early that morning. On the other end, her mother’s grief confirmed the tragic news. “She answered and didn’t say anything. She just screamed,” Vanderhorst recalled. “And the sound of her scream let me know he was dead.”

Leo Vanderhorst, 22, was gunned down in a botched robbery that night. He was the 112th person killed in New Orleans’ 7th Ward that year.

School became secondary in the wake of Leo’s killing, Vanderhorst said. “That next morning, I had a big test in my chemistry class. I didn’t go,” she said. “I left Tallahassee when morning came and I headed for New Orleans with no intent to return.”

When she left she was a dean’s list student, touting an impressive 3.69 grade-point average. Soon, her GPA tumbled to 3.02 that semester.

Focusing on anything besides Leo was hard and her work suffered. “The days I went to class it was hard to pay attention because my mine was consumed with who had killed my brother, why they killed my brother, why they left him on the side of the road to die alone,” she said.

Leo Vanderhorst’s death is common for the African American community. Homicide is the second leading cause for death among young people between 10 and 24 in the U.S., and the leading cause for African Americans, According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Police found Vanderhorst’s body slumped over the steering wheel of a crashed truck that night. He had been shot at five times. Insight News reported that Black males ages 15-19 were more than five times as likely as their White peers and more than twice as likely as their Hispanic peers to be killed by firearms.

Jasmine found herself suffering endlessly in those early months. She quit her extracurricular activities and avoided school and friends. “I stopped hanging out. I hardly went to class,” she said. “It hurt to get out of bed. It hurt to breathe and it was hard to concentrate.”

She struggled through the next semester and friends tried offering her support. “I was there to give her a shoulder to cry on,” said Alexandra Age, one of Vanderhorst’s friends. “I told her everything happens for a reason and God has a plan for her and he’s in a better place.”

Jasmine’s mother suggested she seek counseling, and Jasmine did – at FAMU’s Sunshine Manor. Students are entitled to 12 free sessions each semester. For Jasmine Vanderhorst, counseling didn’t help. “I went and talked to a counselor who seemed to truly care and was really trying to give me strategies to do better, but counseling was not for me,” she said. “After that first session, I shut down. I felt weak and angry at myself. I didn’t go back to school for another two weeks.”

Police have not yet found Leo Vanderhorst’s killer. More than 50 persons – mostly boys aged 14-17 – have been arrested in relation to gang violence. Authorities suspect the killer is among them.

Jasmine Vanderhorst says her brother’s killing is a reflection of youth in New Orleans succumbing to “street life, drugs, and violence in a city full of corruption and poor government.” “Gun violence is a very tragic and horrific thing to go through. My brother was killed and he was a victim. But he was not the only victim,” Vanderhorst said. “I was a victim along with my other brother for the loss of our brother and friend, my mother and father were victims… my brother’s girlfriend of five years was a victim…and the mother of the young boy who killed my brother is a victim because she too lost a son to the streets and to the prison system.”

Nearly a year later, Vanderhorst is at a much better place in life. Although there are times when memories and questions consume her mind, she works to overcome the grief.

She recalled becoming an angry person and losing sight of her faith. But now, she says that she is much wiser and more appreciative of her life and plans to “come back stronger than before, not for myself but for Leo.” She has become more caring and loving of family and friends.

Most importantly she is more connected to her brother’s memory. “He looked up to me and even though I was the youngest he called me his big sister and said I was his role model,” Vanderhorst said. “I need and want to make him proud and live his legacy through me. So school will get better in time, in due time.”