Derek Chauvin trial witness writes book to help children cope with trauma

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Darnella Frazier never would have recorded the video of George Floyd’s death, which helped convict Derek Chauvin, had she said no to her cousin’s request to walk to the store.

Her cousin, 9-year-old Judeah Reynolds, wanted to buy candy but was too young to walk alone. Reynolds was persistent, and Frazier finally agreed to the walk. Both Reynolds and Frazier would soon be caught up in history.

On Friday – the day Floyd would have celebrated his 49th birthday – Reynolds released a book about what she witnessed and ways to help children process traumatic events.

In her book, “A Walk to the Store,” Reynolds writes: “When we get to the store we see something bad. At first we don’t know what’s going on, but we know it’s wrong. My cousin uses her phone to make a video.”

“I keep thinking about it and feeling so sad,” Reynolds adds later in the book. “It is hard for me to sleep. When I sleep, I have bad dreams. When I wake up from a scary dream, my mom gives me hugs. Hugs help me feel better.”

Judeah Reynolds was the youngest witness in the Derek Chauvin trial. A mask partially covers her face as she plays with dolls between a writing session in June 2020 at Beaver's Pond Press.

Embedded in the book is a worksheet with questions and exercises to help children process traumatic events. The guide, for example, recommends keeping things the same. A child who has experienced a disruptive traumatic incident needs normalcy and routine. It also says to use honest language and seek professional help if things are not getting better.

Reynolds, now 11, was shocked when she saw the first copy of her book.

“I said, ‘that is me.’ It was surprising,” she told CNN as she described the book cover showing her wearing a teal shirt with the word love written on it. It looks just like the shirt she wore the day of Floyd’s death.

When asked how many copies she plans to sell, she said, “1 billion.” Yes, she knows that is a lot of copies.

Reynolds says she got the idea to write the book from another child – Cameron Brundidge – who used the power of storytelling to educate people about autism.

“She inspired me to write a book. I saw her book the day I met her and I was like, “I want one too,’” Reynolds said.

Reynolds told her story to Cameron’s mom, the entrepreneur and activist Sheletta Brundidge. Brundidge, who authored three children’s books based on her kids’ experience, is an advocate for representation in media and literature. Reynolds says she received a copy of Cameron’s book from Brundidge.

“And that was the first time she has seen a little girl on the cover of the book who was a central character who looked like her. Hair like hers, a nose like hers and skin like hers. And that’s why it’s so important that we keep saying representation matters,” Brundidge said.

Reynolds was the youngest witness to testify in the trial against Chauvin, who was found guilty of three charges in Floyd’s killing. Reynolds asked her father the meaning of guilty the day the verdict was read. Today, she has her own definition.

“It means like when you lie and they uncover your truth,” she said.

Outrage over the incident helped spark an international protest movement against police brutality, while elevating the national conversation about race and social injustice.

All four officers involved in Floyd’s death were fired and charged.

Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane were convicted of violating Floyd’s civil rights. Thao and Kueng were also found guilty of an additional federal charge earlier this year for failing to intervene to stop Chauvin. Thao and Kueng were sentenced to three-and-a-half years and three years in federal prison, respectively.

Thao and Kueng still face a state trial on charges of aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. They have pleaded not guilty.

Lily Coyle is the owner of Beaver’s Pond Press, the publishing company behind Reynolds’ book. Coyle says she didn’t want to tell this story. She struggled to find a way to tell the story that would not be hurtful.

“It’s kind of an honorable burden. It’s been a beautiful thing to work on, but it’s just been so painful,” she said. “How many other kids have seen this video or have witnessed something else traumatic – whether in person or online?”

The illustrator donated her time, others agreed to get paid later or gifted their services. Coyle says they are fronting all costs linked to the production of the book and paying Reynolds 60% of the profits. As Coyle and Brundidge had writing sessions with Reynolds, they waited for clarity on the direction of the book.

The cover of Judeah Reynolds' book

“I don’t want to put a children’s book out in the world that hurts children or makes life harder for people. It needs to be a tool for healing, and we want to bring grace to this horrible situation,” Coyle said. “We really want children to understand bad things happen, but there are so many more good people in the world. See the bad but don’t be consumed by it. You can be part of what’s good instead of feeding the flames of what’s bad and letting it consume you.”

Nearly two years later, the pain still runs deep. At Creative Kuponya, it’s not only children who need help processing traumatic events.

The mental health practice is a few blocks from what has become known as George Floyd Square. Mental health professional Jamil Stamschort-Lott says about 85% of clients he treats at the practice he shares with his wife identify as people of color. On average, they treat about 120 patients who identify as youth (7 to 24 years old) annually. Stamschort-Lott says he sees children, attorneys and professional athletes, including players from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“Covid and George Floyd exacerbated what was already present. After George Floyd our numbers quadrupled. We have hired three new clinicians and we still can’t keep up with the demand,” he told CNN. “As a Black male clinician, I see Black men are actually coming to the table, and this is contrary to the stigma that has been pushed – 95% of my clients are Black men. If you build it, they will come.”

Stamschort-Lott says research shows about 90% of successful therapy is related to the power of relationship. And Renolds’ book is one way to help the community. Stamschort-Lott says adults should give children space to process and allow them to share how they feel.

That is part of the reason Reynolds planned to distribute about 150 books Friday to students at the Josie R. Johnson Montessori School in Minneapolis.

Reynolds says that by sharing her story, she has learned she can help make things better. She told CNN she wants other children who may have survived a traumatic experience to believe they can, too.

“I’m too little to walk alone to the store,” she says at the end of her book. “But I’m big enough and brave enough to make things better in a very BIG way.”

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