MERRILLVILLE | Aaliyah Stewart was just 7 years old when her 16-year-old brother was shot to death in November 2007 outside a Gary gas station.
At age 14, she lost a cousin as well as her 20-year-old brother to gun violence in the same week.
Aaliyah, now 15, has been to at least 12 funerals for friends and family members, several of them teenagers, she said.
But the Merrillville High School sophomore found strength in her Christian faith and feels God has tasked her with showing others that anger and revenge are not answers to grief.
"I felt like God had put me through so much because my testimony was going to be a light for someone," Aaliyah said.
Aaliyah wasn't initially sure what she could do, but the answer came to her in December 2014, she said.
"I was just sitting there like, 'What can I do? What can I do?' And GoFundMe popped into my head," she said.
Aaliyah started the nonprofit ASW Foundation and used the crowd-funding website to raise $1,500 of a $3,500 goal to give scholarships to two college-bound Merrillville High School students last school year. She raised the rest of the money by selling tickets to a Stop the Violence Banquet in Merrillville in May.
Aaliyah’s brothers, Anthony S. White Jr., 16, and James Anderson, 20, were killed before they could go to college. She wants to help other young people complete that goal, she said.
The events leading up to the shooting deaths of White, Anderson and Aaliyah’s cousin, Michael Stewart, 35, all began at parties, according to police.
After Aaliyah started her foundation, she began to find herself feeling uncomfortable at parties.
“I would be so happy to go, but then when I got there it was like God was telling me, ‘You know you’re not supposed to be there,’” she said. “And so I battled with not fitting in, and then later on I realized I wasn’t put on this Earth to fit in with everybody. I was put on this Earth because God has a mission for me.”
Aaliyah has shared her message of nonviolence at Gary’s Fourth of July parade, and she organized a skating party in April in Glenwood and a Stop the Violence Walk last month in Gary.
She also mentors other kids and participates in the Gary Youth Council, where she and other teens collaborate to bring youths together.
She’s planning a Stop the Violence Day on Oct. 21 at Merrillville High School and hopes to organize a youth basketball tourney around the Thanksgiving holiday.
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Aaliyah said she’s currently focused on continuing to plan local anti-violence events and spreading her message on social media using the #Iamthem hashtag.
She came up with #Iamthem while preparing to speak to students at Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in Gary earlier this year.
Aaliyah told her mother, Yvonne Stewart, she needed to come up with a model.
“Mom was like, ‘I am.’ I was like, ‘I am. I am,’” she recalled. “And we both said, ‘I am them,’ at the same time. We were both like, ‘There you go.’”
“I am them. I’m just like you,” she said. “I never tell people, ‘I understand how you feel.’ I might know how you feel, but I can never understand someone else’s feelings.”
She admits she sometimes feels upset about the loss of her loved ones, but prayer helps her move past those feelings, she said. She finds solace by reciting Psalms 27 daily and reading several poems.
"I just don't think two wrongs make a right," she said. "If you cause somebody a pain, it's going to come back to yours."
Aaliyah said it was her mother who showed her the importance of faith and who has believed in her, even when others didn’t take her plans seriously.
Yvonne Stewart said she’s blessed to have such a gifted daughter.
“She has held me together,” she said. “She’s stronger than I, because without her, I know I wouldn't have made it.
“I’m glad I have a daughter who’s trying to do something in her life, who sees a vision,” she said. “She has values, and I love her.”
Anyone can take a day to reflect on the importance to stopping the violence, but Aaliyah wants people to take it farther, she said.
“You want to continue to remind and remember that split-second decisions, they can change your life,” she said. “You want people to remember: stop the violence. Think before you do this, because there’s a lot of anger that comes along with it.”
Aaliyah is working toward graduating at the end of her junior year, so she can spend a year traveling and speaking to other youths. She’s considering studying entrepreneurship at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., she said.
She’s still raising money at https://www.gofundme.com/iqs1ss for scholarships and other efforts, she said. Aaliyah can be found at Hope Asw on Facebook and Hope_asw on Twitter and Instagram.