Ernest (E.J.) Willingham was surrounded by gun violence as he was growing up in Chicago. Earlier this week, the RUSH medical assistant spoke about his experience with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
Willingham was one of several witnesses with lives touched by gun violence who testified before the bipartisan committee chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois.
“My best friend was shot and killed at 17 by a stray bullet while hanging out with friends in Chicago,” Willingham said. “I never understood the anguish from gun violence until I had to sing and provide comfort to my friend’s family at the funeral.” Willingham grew up on the West Side and in the Cabrini-Green housing project, where his brother was shot twice within a year.
“I have seen my brother, my father, my cousin and my best friend become victims of gun violence,” he said. “Imagine being scared to go out in public or go to family gatherings after being shot, in fear of being shot again.”
‘More funerals than weddings’
Willingham was among five witnesses who addressed the committee and took questions from the senators.
“When it comes to kids and gun violence, we need to treat this like the public health crisis that it is,” Durbin said. “We should listen to our children when they tell us what they’re going through.”
Hearing that a young person has been shot to death is the norm, Willingham said.
"We attend more funerals than weddings. Ask any young person in Chicago how many weddings they have [and] very few would have attended one." Most would have attended at least a dozen funerals, he added.
The path forward
Willingham is entering his junior year at Northeastern University in Boston, where he is studying health sciences and hopes to pursue a medical degree. He credits programs for children and teens, such as the Chicago Youth Program at Lurie Children’s Hospital, which provided him with primary care, mental health services, tutoring and other support.
“This program altered the course of my life, as well as many of my siblings,” Willingham said.
He took part in RUSH’s Health Information Technology program for youth and graduated from Crane Medical Prep High School, which partners with RUSH for internships and other health science programs. This summer, he is working at the RUSH school-based health center at Phillips Academy on the South Side.
"One of my students expressed that she was indecisive about going away for college or staying home due to our country’s current gun violence climate," he said, adding he chose to go to college away from Chicago because of the violence. “Our youth are terrified, unsafe and pleading with elected officials in Washington to muster the courage to protect them.”
You can read his testimony here.