Thomas moves beyond a childhood teeming with gun violence

Benard Thomas lll, courtesy of Amy Donofrio

Bernard Thomas lll was introduced to guns as a young child and learned early on that they’re meant to protect people. But little did Thomas know that he was being raised in an uneasy, gun concentrated environment.

“It don’t matter where you live, if somebody wants to shoot — they’re going to shoot,” Thomas said.

Thomas is 6-foot-4 and stands as tall as his bedroom doorway. His room has a theme of blue by his lights, curtains, bed comforter, a blue basketball jersey and blue tennis rackets hanging on his wall.

He said that blue is good for the brain and makes him feel safe. Clearly, it’s also his favorite color.

He sat on the edge of his bed relaxed, but so jumpy that he constantly changed his sitting position.

“I have ADHD,” he said smiling.

Thomas is a junior social work student from Jacksonville. He came to Florida A&M University on a tennis scholarship but he’s also very skilled in basketball and plays for an intramural team in Tallahassee.

Before attending FAMU, Thomas strictly focused on sports as it became a distraction from the street violence that heavily centered guns. He enjoys the competition of sports and was committed to using his athletic abilities to gain an education.

“So for me, whatever got me out of Jacksonville was what was gonna work for me. And it just so happened that tennis did,” Thomas said.

In Jacksonville, 78 percent of homicides involved gun violence in 2019, according to News 4 Jax.

There was a gun death that deeply affected Thomas, but he chose to not speak on it.

Thomas says that almost everyone in his neighborhood has a gun because the possibility of getting hurt is unpredictable.

“If you live in Duval County, you know that a bullet don’t have a name on it. You can be in the mist of everything —crazy stuff,” Thomas said.

Thomas recalled a man from his neighborhood who sleeps in a car with multiple guns and how guns would be fired on any occasion.

“My junior and senior year, at a football game, there were gunshots let off at the football game —somebody got shot at the football game,” he said.

Thomas explained how the unpredictability of his environment revealed to him that guns can still cause problems due to jealousy. He feels that people are always going to want what you have.

But Thomas knows firsthand that everyone isn’t given a choice about the kind of environment or situations they’re put in.

“Some people are being labeled as a gang member just by the way that they look and where they’re from. Why put that label on someone who has never committed a real crime,” he said.

He sympathizes with some people according to their situation and stereotypes.

“You can’t help that you’re born into poverty. And even if they did commit a crime, was it a crime of need? None of that goes into consideration,” Thomas added.

But now, Thomas is preparing to attend the Alumni of Color Conference at Harvard University this weekend. An accomplishment he can’t stop beaming about.

“Nobody did this, you feel me? That I know,” he said.

Thomas will be participating in a poster fair to discuss his non-profit at the conference. It’s for people who are trying to transform their communities.

Thomas focuses on juvenile justice. He has put effort into working with Ferguson leaders and Duval County attorneys and public officials in his hometown of Jacksonville.

Juvenile justice sparked his interest a few years ago, when one of his classmates was almost given 10 years in prison for accessory to armed robbery, despite it being his first offense and the fact that he was nearly 16 years old.

He says it was a shocking and scary moment for him and his classmates. So Thomas wanted to do something about it.

“Me and a lot of my peers actually listened to ourselves about something, “ he said.

He said they still feel uncomfortable talking to police, but he’s willing to put his pride aside and do it for the betterment of his community.

His late grandmother, someone who made a big impact on his life, saw Thomas’ passion and mindset to make it out of Jacksonville early on.

“She saw my heart and work ethic. I didn’t really like drama— I didn’t like conflict yet. I still had to go through it, I still had to persevere. She saw that I wanted to get out of it and stayed on me,” he said.

Thomas has a tight-knit circle of friends who know him as “Nard.” One of his closest friends and cousin, Xavier Spearman, describes Thomas as a great friend.

Spearman joked about Thomas’ character quite a bit, but he said, “He’s willing to give his last for other people and puts himself on the line for other people.”

Thomas credits his tennis coach, “Coach Mark,” who is like a second father to him for his current path with tennis and social work.

Thomas also thanks Amy Donofrio, a former teacher of his who helped him come out of his shell and was dedicated to juvenile justice and children.

Thomas also talked about his younger sister, Amaiya Thomas, who now admires him. The two were able to grow closer after Amaiya wrote him a heartfelt letter about how proud she was of him and his hard work.

“I thought she hated me. I used to feel like I was letting her down! But when I got to college it just changed. She was applying for a scholarship and wrote a full page about how I was her role model,” he said.

Thomas couldn’t put his ultimate goal into words, but he wishes to achieve freedom of expression.

“A lot of people can’t express themselves freely. They get labeled for expressing themselves. For standing up for yourself. So yeah, expression,” he said.

Thomas smiled widely and proudly showed off a Tupac graphic tee and a hoodie that read, “I AM NOT A GANG MEMBER.”

The hoodie represents the organization “EVAC” which focuses on youth concerns and solutions to combat racism, police brutality and the justice system.

Thomas is currently working on creating his own non-profit for his juvenile justice efforts and has been working with others.

Thomas may have grown up in a place where bullets are unpredictable, but he’s certain to create change for his hometown of Jacksonville and youth everywhere.