Chris French headed into the intensive-care unit at Washington Hospital Center last August to visit his mother, who had just had surgery. He was wearing a visor that said FAMU.
A woman in the waiting room stopped him, saying her niece had planned to start her freshman year at Florida A&M University the following week. But her niece had been struck by a stray bullet earlier in the day, and the family was anxiously awaiting news of her condition.
French realized she was talking about Jamahri Sydnor, a 17-year-old bystander who had been caught in a hail of bullets intended for someone else as she drove on a street in Washington.
French, 19, who was also heading to FAMU for his freshman year, didn’t know Jamahri, but he was part of a texting group of incoming students, and someone had mentioned what had happened to her.
He couldn’t believe he was at the same hospital as she was. “I was shocked,” he said.
French asked the family if he could pray with them. Right there in the waiting area, he bowed his head with Jamahri’s mother and aunt, praying for Jamahri’s full recovery, and strength for her family.
“I went home and prayed for them more,” said French, who had been living in Dallas but was visiting his mother in the District of Columbia for the summer.
The next morning, French arrived at the hospital to hear the news that Jamahri had died. He had never met her, but he still felt the loss of a classmate.
He decided to give the family space and not approach them. But then Jamahri’s parents walked over to him.
“They stopped me and made conversation, asked if I was ready for FAMU,” French said.
French told them he was eager to begin college, but he wasn’t really ready to start the following week because he had to do his shopping for his dorm. He’d been spending time with his mother in the hospital and he hadn’t made it out for a shopping trip.
Jamahri’s mother, D.C. Police Sgt. Q. Wallace, replied: “What do you need?”
“I was like, ‘No, I’m fine, I just have to get to the store,’ ” French said.
“We have so much stuff we bought for our daughter,” French recalled Wallace saying. “Please come by.”
So the next day, French went to the family’s home in Washington.
“Everything you’d need for a college dorm was there,” French said. “There was a trunk full of stuff – pens, pencils, towels, hangers, tissues, soap, lotion – you name it.”
He said he felt a little awkward because he didn’t know the family well, and they were in such deep mourning. “Her father just put the stuff in my trunk and told me to take care,” French said.
But then Jamahri’s parents told French to come back the following day, because they had more things to give him.
“He seemed like a really nice kid,” said Jamahri’s father, Jerome Sydnor, a bus operator.
French did as they asked. The next day, they gave him a pillow, a broom, a dining set and more dorm furnishings they had bought for Jamahri.
Her mother said she felt bad that the sheets were too “girly” for French, so she gave him $80 to buy sheets. Other family members gathered around and they prayed together. Then, one by one, they all opened their wallets, giving French spending money as a gesture of friendship and to help ease his transition into college.
“I left the house with about $200,” French said. “It was very humbling.”
Sydnor used the same word to describe French.
“He was very humble,” he said. “Whatever he decides to do in life, he’s going to achieve. He seems to be a bright kid.”
Wallace told him to stay in touch, which he has done.
“I just talked to them last week,” French said Monday. “They’re taking things day by day; it’s not something that you can get over.”
He noted that they don’t talk about themselves much when he calls.
“They more so ask about how I’m doing,” he said, adding that his mother has recovered from her surgery.
Sydnor said the days after his daughter died were cloudy and hard to remember. “I miss and love my daughter so much,” he said.
Although French was not able to meet Jamahri, he has heard a lot about her, and said he wishes he had known her.
“They said she was happy and joyous and was always dancing,” French said. “They said she had a really big heart.”
He added: “After her life ended, she is still able to affect someone else’s life.”
French said he often thinks about Jamahri when he uses the furnishings her parents lovingly bought for her.
“I’m grateful when I use the stuff,” he said. “It makes me think that someone went out of their way to do this for me even at such a difficult time.”
Allison Klein/The Washington Post