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A Role To Be Played – by Richard Taylor

Richard Taylor’s ten-year-old son Damilola was killed in 2001 on the way home from an after-school club. Following Damilola’s death, Richard and his late wife, Gloria founded the Damilola Taylor Trust to bring positive change to inner-city communities and increase the options and opportunities available to youngsters in those areas. In 2011, Richard was awarded an OBE for his services to the prevention of youth violence in the New Year Honours list. He dedicated the honour to Gloria and Damilola. 

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink” (Romans 12: 17,20a, NRSV)

John Sentamu writes:

The Apostle Paul’s famous Chapter 13 of his First Letter to the Corinthians about love says, ‘Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”
(1 Corinthians 13:7). In fact it describes the very characteristics we see in Jesus of Nazareth in the four Gospels. 

Richard Taylor’s story is full of the pain of loss, but also full of the love of God who has helped him bear and endure the murder of his young ten-year-old son, and then the death of his wife, and has brought hope for others as a result. 

How can we bear this kind of pain and still love? Only through the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Richard found this, when he tried to find some way forward after Damilola was so brutally killed by boys not much older than himself. 

Richard saw that young people in the community needed help to have hope for their future. He was able to turn his hurt and distress to practical ways of building up those young people so that they could become the people God meant them to be. 

Jesus tells his followers that love is not just easy affection for those we like, but the difficult path of caring for those who hurt us: ‘love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Luke 6:27-28, 31). Richard discovered the power of this kind of love and in doing so is changing lives.

A precious gift from the almighty

Damilola was our youngest child by ten years. We hadn’t expected at that time in our lives to have another child, so when we learned Gloria was pregnant again we felt this child was a wonderful, precious gift from the Almighty. From the moment Damilola came into the world on 7th December 1989 we saw signs of that special gift. He was a brilliant boy who had friends of all ages. He had a smile that no-one could ignore because from it shone his love for life, with an infectious quality that made people want to be around him.

For the first ten years of Damilola’s life we lived, as a family, in Lagos, Nigeria, where I worked as a civil servant. Our daughter Gbemi has a severe form of epilepsy, which today still affects her and us as a family. We heard that there were more successful treatments available in the UK, so in the summer of 2000, Gloria and our three children, Gbemi, aged 23, Tunde, aged 21, and Damilola, aged 10, flew to Britain so that Gbemi could go to King’s College Hospital in London, for what was the best treatment in the world at that time.

I would have preferred for Damilola to stay in Nigeria and continue his education, but he insisted on joining his brother and sister in the UK, so that was it, the family went and I stayed behind in Lagos because of my work. In many ways our life in Nigeria had been privileged, in that our children had many opportunities, and naturally from that came big dreams for their futures. We had a comfortable home and Damilola had a private driver to take him to and from school. Now he was squatting at an auntie’s house in Peckham and was confronted with lots of challenges he’d never experienced before, and the stories I was hearing were not good ones.

Around that time there were a lot of illegal immigrants hiding in the area and they were scared to be found out. Whenever kids saw new migrants arrive in the area they would ask them for money as protection fees. I told Damilola: ‘Don’t give any money to other kids so that you can go to school.’ So, Damilola never carried any money to school, although the kids still asked him every day. Those kids were collecting money for older kids who were buying drugs from dealers – that was the kind of activity that was going on, but no one ever paid much attention to these kids, many of whom who were in care, separated from their parents and any family.

Listening to these stories, Gloria and I were concerned that Damilola was being bullied, but he never complained. He was a joyous child, focused on all the new experiences his environment was exposing him to, and the opportunities he hadn’t had in Nigeria. He joined a computer club at Peckham library, where he would go after school, and he was excited about what he was learning. He told me on the phone: ‘Daddy, I am going to do a lot of work. I am going to study medicine so that I can learn about epilepsy and help Gbemi.’

Damilola never arrived home

Three months after arriving in the UK, Damilola left the computer club at about 4.30pm as usual and never arrived home. CCTV footage shows him running in that direction, but only 500 yards from his front door he was attacked and stabbed in the thigh with a broken bottle. A workman, seeing a trail of blood, followed it to find Damilola slumped in a stairwell of a block of flats where he had collapsed, trying to make his way home. The glass had severed an artery and Damilola died from blood loss on the way to hospital. He was ten days away from his eleventh birthday.

I was at a meeting in the Parliamentary Secretary’s office when I was told the news. It was Tuesday morning and a phone call came through for me. At first I refused to take the call because I had my own office and didn’t expect to receive calls in the Parliamentary Secretary’s office. The man with the phone insisted. ‘This call is from the UK,’ he said.

‘What? What’s happening?’ I said, taking the handset. It was my son, Tunde on the other end of the line.

‘Why are you calling me now? How did you get this number?’ I asked him.

‘I called your office and I think they transferred the call,’ he said.

‘What’s going on?’ There was a pause on the other end and I knew something was very wrong.

‘Damilola went to school yesterday and he didn’t come home, he was stabbed to death.’

A scream came from deep inside me and then I must have passed out because I came round to see everyone standing around me. Luckily there was a doctor at the meeting and he was a kind man. Straight away he told the Parliamentary Secretary that I should be allowed to leave and go to the UK. The same doctor arranged my travel and gave me $500 to use as expenses on the trip.

I am telling you right from the bottom of my heart that I cannot understand what happened. Damilola’s killers were 13-year-old Ricky Preddie and his 12-year-old brother Danny. It deeply saddens me to think that a young person can take the life of another young person as if that life is nothing. After it happened people came to me talking about seeking revenge but I would send them away. I won’t be pushed by other people to be involved in negativity and destruction in the community. I have to use my brain to be able to control the emotion, and the emotion is there still.

Many people were shocked and saddened by what happened, and shortly afterwards we were approached by Southwark Council who wanted to set up a charity in Damilola’s name, whose work it would be to look into all the problems of young people in the area and try to do something about it. At the time our grief was still fresh so my response was: ‘Just do what you want to do.’ The charity was launched a year after Damilola’s death. We were told that after a year the council would hand it over to the family and that is what happened.

During his three months in the UK Damilola kept a craft book of poems and drawings. I remember Gloria telling me on the phone: ‘Your son is always on the carpet drawing.’ When I looked at his papers I saw that he had been taking everything in about his new surroundings, but two things stood out to me. The first was a sketch of the hospital theatre where he one day hoped to work and the second was a short poem which read, ‘I will travel far and wide to choose my destiny to remould the world. I know it is my destiny to defend the world which I hope to achieve in my lifetime’. When I read those words I felt a need deep inside me to fulfil the ambition of the young man. I’d lost my son because of the neglect and rot in the community; someone has to get up and do something.

Back in Nigeria I’d been involved in youth development programmes like setting up football clubs and sporting activities so I did have some experience to draw on. I also knew about the problems of the underprivileged children in Peckham, especially in the African Caribbean community. I couldn’t understand how children had degenerated into this kind of lifestyle, but I knew that we needed to do something to help to support and improve the environment that these kids were living in. There was, and still is, a need to bring hope and happiness to the young people and to encourage them to make the most of their educational opportunities, because many of the youths in the area are excluded from schools for various reasons. There is a role to be played by everybody in that sense, the government, the council, the education system, the church, and maybe it’s a role my family has been given too. As a result of Damilola’s life, we now have a part to play.

Guiding young people to better choices in life

Over the years the Trust has developed many projects to guide children and young people towards better choices in life, particularly those who may otherwise be vulnerable to gang and knife crime and those at risk of being kicked out of schools. For four years Gloria and I hosted the Spirit of London awards, funded by the Home Office and run by the Damilola Taylor Trust, to recognise the good work of some of the young people in the community we’d been supporting. We’d been helping open opportunities for young people to develop their potential, and some of them went on to build businesses of their own. We were also invited by King’s College, London to be part of its access to medicine project for young people who have been unable to gain admission into mainstream medical school. Several of the young people who used the scheme have now graduated and are practising medicine in the UK and abroad, which is something that has made me happy.

Until she died in 2008, Gloria gave everything she had to the work of the charity. I believe that she died because of the pressure and heartbreak caused to her by Damilola’s death – she loved him so much. Gloria bottled up her hurt. I am able to talk about my heartbreak, but she couldn’t. After his death she was diagnosed with high blood pressure. One day as I was coming home I saw a crowd of people standing around a person on the ground. When I got closer, I could see it was Gloria; she’d had a heart attack and fallen to the ground. I travelled with her in the ambulance but I knew as soon as I saw her face that I’d lost her.

Gloria was 57 years old when she died. I’ve lost my son, my wife, and my job. My life will never be the same, but I am still alive. I believe that Gloria’s spirit and Damilola’s spirit are still alive and that they will be watching in fulfilment the achievements we’ve been able to do in Damilola’s name.

I believe that through the Damilola Taylor Trust we are changing lives. We have done a lot to bring hope to the area and some young people are now benefitting from Damilola’s tragic death. My joy is to believe that some other people are achieving what Damilola cannot.

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