Before his son Shaka committed suicide in 1990, Les Franklin spent most of his time working and commuting between his home in Denver and his job in Boulder. Within a week of his son’s death, Franklin knew he wanted to start a foundation to help young people.
Before her son was murdered in 2005, Rhonda Fields was a single mom who was out of touch with a certain element of crime. She spiraled into a deep depression after Javad died, but her desire to help others got her out of it.
The deaths of their sons propelled Franklin (BA in Business and Physical Education, 1962) and Fields (BA in Special Education, 1976; MA in Counseling and Guidance, 1979) into arenas they never imagined. Franklin now looks back on more than 20 years that he and his wife, Marianne, have invested in young people through the Shaka Franklin Foundation for Youth. Fields now serves in the Colorado House of Representatives, a direct result of her efforts to help other victims and witnesses of crime.
Their stories reveal how tragedy changes people — and how people turn those tragedies into greater purpose for their lives.
Making dreams come true
The photos on the Franklins’ piano in their Denver home represent the dozens of people they have welcomed into their lives and their home through the years.
They are teenage boys like the one Les met in Pueblo after Shaka died. Les was telling his story, how he had a D average as a kid in school but went on to join the Air Force and become an executive at IBM.
“Mr. Franklin, you give me hope,” said the boy, who also did poorly in school.
Years later, the same young man approached Les at another speaking event.
“Remember me?” he asked. He told Les he was about to graduate from Notre Dame University.
They are little girls like 7-year-old Shelby Trujillo. She had a brain tumor, and all she wanted to do was go ice skating. Someone called the Franklins and asked if they could help. They made some calls and soon a party was organized for her at an ice rink in Aurora. More people than they ever imagined showed up.
Les picked Shelby up and skated around the ice with her. “Thank you,” she whispered to him.
Wherever Les and Marianne have gone for the past 20 years, their desire has been to make people’s dreams come true. Suicide more often than not stems from a lack of hope, and the Franklins have sought to put hope back in people’s hearts.
“Whatever it takes to help a child be successful is what we have wanted to do,” Les says. “We don’t care what a kid’s color, religion or sexual orientation is. So many kids feel hopeless, like they’re not in control of anything.”
It all started for the Franklins on Oct. 19, 1990, the day 16-year-old Shaka, a football player at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver, shot himself in the house that Les and Marianne still live in. Marianne was a stepmother to Shaka (pictured left) and his older brother, Jamon (pictured right). Les and the boys’ mother had divorced. She died of cancer in 1991.
Before Shaka took his life, both Les and Marianne noticed the changes in him — the despondency, his lack of sleep, his giving away personal belongings.
“We noticed it but didn’t know what to do about it,” Les says.
Shaka’s suicide was attributed to depression about his mother’s failing health and a season–ending football injury.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24. According to Unite4Life, a nonprofit suicide prevention organization, 12 teenagers commit suicide each day. In the average high school classroom, there are three students who have attempted suicide in the past year.
Soon after his son’s death, Les left his 18-hour-a-day job at IBM and started working as the state director of job training under then-Gov. Roy Romer. He also started traveling across the state and around the country speaking to young people, parents and teachers about the warning signs of suicide.
“Suicide is this underground discussion among young people,” Les says. “And many adults pass it off as just another problem of youth.”
The Shaka Franklin Foundation for Youth started with a suicide prevention message but turned into an effort to replace what was increasingly being eliminated at public schools — computer education, music and other creative outlets that give kids a sense of purpose and belonging. Through luncheons and golf tournaments, the Franklins built up seed money to open a center.
In 1999, Shaka’s Place opened at 5929 E. 38th Ave. in Denver. The 5,000-square-foot center has 18 computer stations, a theater, a video editing room and music production studios. An estimated 9,000 young people have used the center during the past 12 years. The foundation has also offered ice skating lessons and sponsored hockey teams and figure skaters.
In August 2000, the Franklins faced the unimaginable. Their oldest son, Jamon, committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning at their home while they were out of town. He was 32 and worked for the foundation.
“I was sad when Shaka died,” Les says. “But I was mad when Jamon died. He knew what he was doing. He knew what it would do to me.”
After 9/11, fundraising became more difficult for the Franklins and nonprofit organizations everywhere. The recession of the past several years has made things even harder.
The Franklins carried on, taking their message of hope across the globe. They visited South Africa for the first time in 2006 and have gone back several times. The foundation financially supports a school there, helping provide things like meals and books for the children.
The time has come, though, for a transition. Les and Marianne face health problems, including two heart attacks Les has suffered in the past four years. The foundation has some lingering projects — land in Westcliffe for a 320-acre ranch and a capital campaign that is about $1 million shy in a plan to build an ice rink at 51st and Broadway in Denver.
The Franklins are in the process of setting up a partnership with the University of Colorado at Denver. The foundation’s assets will likely be sold and the proceeds put into a scholarship fund at UCD. The foundation will continue to operate out of an office at the university and host its annual fundraising luncheons.
Both Les and Marianne look forward with mixed emotions.
“When Les first talked to me about taking the foundation in a different direction, I thought, ‘We can’t do that. We have to keep doing this,’ ” Marianne says. “Then I thought about all the young people we’ve been able to help, and I realized there’s nothing to feel bad about.” Les admits he feels like a part of his life remains unfinished.
“I don’t think I can live long enough to see all my dreams come true,” he says. “What’s kept me alive is all the relationships with these kids. They all have responded to the love we have shown them.”
The day before Rhonda Fields’ (pictured right) son Javad was killed, he received a warning: “You’re a marked man.”
In 2004, Javad had watched his best friend die and agreed to testify against one of the gunmen who shot three people at a Fourth of July party.
On June 20, 2005, less than a week before the trial was to begin, Javad and his fiancée Vivian Wolfe were shot and killed at an intersection in Aurora. Javad had just graduated from Colorado State University.
“I never imagined I’d be the mother of a murdered child,” Fields says. “I was a single mom living a middle-class life. I was out of touch with the element of crime that led to my son’s death.”
Fields fell into a depression after Javad died. Then someone from CSU called and asked if Fields would raise money to match the amount a donor was willing to give to establish a scholarship in memory of her son and fiancée.
“My foundation had crumbled beneath me, but this gave me something to do,” Fields says.
By October of that year, she presented a check for $15,000 for the memorial fund.
In the months that followed, Fields attended the trials of the three men charged with and eventually convicted of murdering Javad and Wolfe. She and Wolfe’s mother also started working with former state Rep. Michael Garcia and state Sen. Nancy Spence to pass a bill aimed at closing some of the gaps to help protect witnesses of crime. That bill became the Javad Marshall Fields and Vivian Wolfe Witness Protection Act.
“I felt I needed to do something,” Fields says. “I wanted to stand up against things I could no longer tolerate. I felt like I needed to speak out against this whole idea that it was OK to see a crime and not talk about it.”
The act requires law enforcement to go through training about witness protection. It also requires that witness identities remain confidential.
Prosecutors had reason to be concerned about Javad’s safety, but by the time a judge considered their motion to keep his and other witness information secret, a defense lawyer had given that information to his client, a drug dealer associated with a gang in Chicago. According to Fields, Javad (pictured with his fiancée Vivian Wolfe) knew about the state’s witness protection program, which at the time was a little-used program with a budget of about $15,000.
Fields’ involvement in passing the witness protection act caught the attention of Democrats in the Colorado General Assembly. When House District 42 Rep. Karen Middleton decided to drop out of the race last fall to head a San Francisco-based political organization, Democrats chose Fields to replace her. Fields won the election and became the first African-American woman from Arapahoe County to serve in the House.
Now Fields spends five months of the year serving in the state house. The rest of the year she is the regional training manager for worldwide airport operations training and development for United Airlines. Her job allows her a leave of absence to work as a state representative.
Fields credits two things as she looks back at the direction her life has taken since her son was killed.
One is her experience at UNC. She was involved in student government while in school. After graduating with her master’s degree, she worked on campus for eight years within the division of Student Affairs on course instruction, retention services, academic advisement and student mentoring.
“I learned my leadership skills at UNC,” she says. “I also learned the importance of helping people.”
The second is her faith.
“I have learned through all of this that I am a woman of faith,” says Fields, who attends a Baptist church. “It is really easy to get lost in grief. But my faith and my church have propelled me through. It’s the only way I could have gone through a double murder and sit through five trials and still have this conversation.” NV
— Anne Cumming Rice is a Denver freelance writer and former college journalism instructor.