MANATEE — After losing her boyfriend in a violent crime, Mariah Ward vowed not to let his death be in vain.
Ward, 17, has formed a nonprofit organization for reaching out to other victims’ families and speaking out about violence.
Speak for the Unspoken was formed to honor DeJuan Williams, who was gunned down in his backyard in early August.
“I knew after reading about the other homicides in the county, I had to do something,” she said. “I decided there shouldn’t be another mother or girlfriend who has to deal with what I had to.”
Williams returned home just before 10 p.m. Aug. 4 to find another teen had been visiting his 14-year-old sister, against the orders of their parents, according to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office report.
When Williams confronted Byron Galloway, 16, with a baseball bat in the backyard, Galloway opened fire, hitting Williams once, the report states. Williams was taken to Manatee Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Ward dated Williams for 1 1/2 years and the two were inseparable.
The news of her boyfriend’s death deeply affected the Bayshore High School senior.
She recites crime statistics without any hesitation — there were 23 homicides in Manatee County since the first of the year — 12 gun related. “I decided to do something about it,” Ward said.
After talking to her mother, Juliann Puriton, and friends, she decided the only thing she could do is raise awareness of violent crime in the county. “The guy who killed my boyfriend was 16,” Ward said. “So the question is how can somebody that age get a gun.”
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube said he was not aware of Ward’s efforts, but anything anyone can do to raise awareness is good.
“It all falls back on the moms and dads being in charge of their kids,” Steube said. “They need to know where they are at and who they are with.”
The first step Ward took was to create a Web site for her organization.
“I didn’t want it to be just for my friends and family,” Ward said. “I know there are others going through what I am.”
So along with raising awareness about violent crime, she also wants to start an outreach program for the families and friends of other victims of those crimes.
Ward’s actions do not surprise her mother.
“I’m so proud of her,” Puriton said. “To make something good out of a devastating situation.”
She said her daughter’s deep Christian faith has guided her through her grief.
Ward returned to school last week not knowing how her fellow students would react. “Some students just ignore me because they don’t know what to say,” she said. “Others tell me how sorry they are and how difficult it must be because they know how much he loved me.”