HAMMOND | Each Wednesday, Vanessa Weaver sends a letter, and each Monday she receives one.
The correspondence is with Justin Weaver, her older brother who was indicted along with many members of the Imperial Gangsters street gang during federal raids last year and is in custody while awaiting trial on federal racketeering charges.
A junior cross country runner for Hammond, Vanessa is taking every step she can to avoid a similar fate. Her brother, who was only 19 at the time of the federal indictment last November, gives her a weekly reminder to keep her life on a promising path.
Although she has 18 piercings on her body — two on her hips, two on her lips and 14 on her ears— it is the simple script “Promise” tattooed on her right pinky that holds the most meaning. Earlier this year she and her sister Jennifer, who herself did not finish high school, made a pinky promise and commemorated it with Vanessa’s first tattoo.
Jennifer has a tattoo on her pinky as well.
“We pinky-promised and swore that I would follow my dreams and goals and make something of myself,” Vanessa said. “My brother is in jail, and I want to do good and not end up like him. I want to set a good example for my little brother.
“(Justin) put our family through a lot.”
The fifth of six siblings, Vanessa Weaver is on the A/B honor roll with a 3.6 GPA and aspirations of going away to Ball State or another college to pursue either nursing or criminal justice.
Her family moved from East Chicago to Hammond midway through her freshman year at E.C. Central. She didn’t start her athletic career until this past spring when she ran track. Running the 800 meters and other distance events gave her a much-needed break from life.
“In my mind, there are all these negative thoughts, but you look around and you find motivation,” Weaver said. “It clears my mind. I like how this sport also shows people you can do a sport and have good grades and there are people I can do better than.”
First-year Hammond coach Travis Morris — who was a sprinters coach and sent sprinters to state six of the past seven years at Bishop Noll, Gavit and Hammond — has reinvigorated the cross country team and made the sport fun for the 20 boys and girls participating.
At home football games, the cross country team runs a lap around the track for every point the Wildcats score. After six points, they run six more; if another touchdown gives them 12, that’s 12 more laps.
“Morale is picking up, and I believe they believe,” Morris said. “When everyone can look at themselves in the mirror and look teammates in the eye and say they tried their hardest, that’s what builds us up.”
The Wildcats will participate in the Great Lakes Athletic Conference meet today, and while Weaver is the fastest girl on the team she is still working on cutting time from her 5Ks.
“I believe she can be the conference champ next year,” Morris said.
“She has the potential inside her body, and she likes pain.”
Although she wore spikes in track season, Weaver races cross country in black high-top Converse All-Stars, Chuck Taylors with pink shoelaces. Sometimes she runs local bike trails in moccasins or house shoes.
“Running shoes are ugly,” she said. “I stand out in the crowd, and that’s what I want to do.”
Weaver said the unconventional footwear gives her comfort and helps her pick up her feet to maintain her stride. It’s a stride she’s determined not to break.