Donny Bibbes keeps asking his mom the same question:
“Mom, what happened to my head?”
The 10-year-old Buffalo boy knows he hurt himself somehow. An M-shaped scar zigzags across his head. He’s partially blind and has problems with his short-term memory.
“Did I fall off my bike? Was I doing a wheelie? I should’ve worn my helmet.”
Chawniqua Johnson doesn’t know how to answer her son. So she tells him she didn’t see what happened.
But she did.
On the night of Aug. 25, 2016, when Donny was 8, someone opened fire on Johnson's car just after she parked. A bullet struck the boy in the head, piercing his brain and shattering the front of his skull.
Speeding away from the scene, she asked Donny's half-brother who was in the backseat with him: “Is Donny all right?”
“No,” he said.
Donny slumped in his seat unconscious, blood trickling down his head.
Twenty long months later, Donny is finally well enough to go back to school. Wednesday was his first day at the New York State School for the Blind in Batavia.
“I feel good about him going to school,” Johnson said. “He can do something different. He’s always sitting at home. It’s always just me and him. He don’t get to do too much.”
She’s nervous though. She’s barely left his side since that night. Their family has gone through so much since then.
'He could die'
At first, she thought it was fireworks.
All summer long, they would hear the exploding fireworks at the end of Buffalo Bisons games at Coca-Cola Field when they would visit Johnson’s sister on South Division Street.
On the night of Aug. 25, Johnson and Donny, whose birth name is Donnell, were with Donny’s half-brothers, Davieon White, then 19, and his brother Raheem White, then 23. Johnson drove them to McDonald’s before heading to her sister’s home.
It was raining as Johnson parked on the street. She asked Donny, who was eating in the back with Raheem White: “You almost done with your food?”
Donny was starting to reply when they heard a sound. They looked back, Johnson said.
Police said at the time that a gunman got out of another vehicle and approached the Johnson vehicle. The shooter opened fire with a handgun from about 20 to 30 feet away and fired as many as 15 bullets.
Johnson drove away from the gunfire. She needed to find help for Donny. He was unconscious and bleeding.
A bullet struck him on the right side of his head and exited through the left side. Johnson said she saw a police car near the McDonald’s where they had just been. The officer was dealing with a fender bender.
An ambulance arrived and paramedics began working on Donny.
“Is he OK?” Johnson remembered asking.
“He has a strong pulse,” an EMT responded. They rushed him to Women & Children’s Hospital on Bryant Street.
A police officer brought Johnson to the homicide unit at police headquarters and questioned her about the shooting. Police would later say they believed Davieon White was the intended target.
Eventually a detective insisted Johnson be allowed to go to the hospital to be with her son.
“I was scared,” Johnson said, as she sat in the waiting room as doctors worked to save Donny.
Johnson still remembers the somber look on the surgeon’s face when he came out to the waiting room to give her updates on Donny.
“He was like: ‘We don’t know. We don’t know. He could die,’ ” she recalled.
To treat the injury to his brain, the surgeon removed part of Donny’s skull and placed it inside his abdomen. It would stay there for six months until the swelling in the brain had gone down and the injury had healed.
Signs of recovery
Just before Donny’s 9th birthday on Sept. 12, doctors removed his breathing tube, a sign that the boy was beginning to recover, his mother said.
Soon after he started trying to communicate. He would smile sometimes. Tears would fall when something hurt. He would squeeze his mother’s hand when she asked him to. Then one day he pointed to the diaper that had been put on him and grunted: “Uh-uhn.” He didn’t want it.
The doctors were thrilled. “This is excellent,” one told her.
She stayed by her son’s side. “I didn’t leave one day,” Johnson said.
That brought financial difficulties. Johnson, who had a job as an inspector at a local auto manufacturing plant, couldn’t work. She lost her apartment and her car. She had to take their dog, a friendly pit bull named Ciroc, to the SPCA.
As Donny’s health improved, he was moved to a rehabilitation center in Rochester. There he learned to talk and walk again.
And that was when he started to ask questions about how he had hurt his head.
“Tell me the truth?” he would ask.
On Jan. 25, Johnson’s family was struck by another tragedy.
Her son, Lewis Brewer, was killed in a shooting. He was 16. Police said that again, his older brother, Daveion White, was the intended target. The brothers had just left a store on French Street with two other young men when someone opened fire on them.
“He was a good kid,” Johnson said of Lewis. “I never had a problem with him.”
Johnson told Donny about what happened to Lewis. It was devastating for the boy. “They were extremely close,” she said.
Donny was able to attend the funeral. It was the one time, Johnson said, that she was glad he was blind. “He couldn’t see anything,” she said.
After his rehabilitation was over in Rochester, Donny returned to Children’s where doctors removed the piece of his skull from his stomach and put it back over his brain.
After six months, he was finally able to go home .
Getting back to normal
Today, Donny has some vision but it’s extremely impaired.
“His peripheral vision, that’s gone,” Johnson said. Donny has trouble focusing his eyes. He often has to put his head down and look up to be able to see straight.
Working with a tutor at home, he’s relearning how to read and write.
“He can write his name now,” she said, although he has a hard time keeping his letters between lines.
The ordeal has been difficult on Johnson and her family. Her daughter, Dazhanique, 20, was deeply upset by what happened to Donny and Lewis. She has been in and out of hospitals with stomach ailments that doctors think may be the result of severe stress. Johnson has struggled with depression and insomnia. Daveion White was arrested on a burglary charge last year and is in prison.
But things also are starting to get back to normal.
Donny is the same shy boy he was before. He turns away and rolls his eyes when he’s asked to talk about himself. He loves video games, especially anything involving race cars, which doctors say is good for his vision. He likes to play on an iPad given to him by a Buffalo police captain.
Donny idolizes LeSean McCoy. “Shady!” he says with a big smile when he hears the Buffalo Bills’ running back’s name.
He’s also getting big. He’s 5 feet 4 inches tall already.
For the last month, the family has been in a new apartment. And last week, Donny started at the New York State School for the Blind in Batavia, a small public school that provides highly specialized care. It’s a long bus ride – up to an hour in each direction, but Johnson is hopeful her son will get the specialized attention he needs.
“He’s doing good,” his mother said of his first couple of days. She calls the school every day and Donny checks in with her at lunch time. “They said he’s interacting. He’s a fast learner,” she said the teachers told her.
As for Johnson, she can't help but worry. Her son may not know what happened to him, but she'll never forget.
"I'm just trying to hold everything together, keep my mind right," she said. "I don't have a choice but to stay focused."
Fundraiser for Donny
To help Donny, Charles Burgin, an anti-gun violence activist who is the chairman of the District Parent Coordinating Council Mentor Trauma and Violence Committee, has helped establish a trust fund for him.
The fund will be highlighted at an event Burgin is organizing called “Take a Stand against Gun Violence and Support for Students Suffering from Trauma and Anxiety Movement” scheduled for 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. May 21 in East Community High School, 820 Northampton St.
Donations to the fund, which was set up with assistance by the Hodgson Russ law firm, can be mailed to Donnell Bibbes Trust Fund, c/o DPCC Mentor Trauma and Violence Committee, PO Box 233 Buffalo NY 14201 with checks made out to the Donnell Bibbes Trust Fund.