Drive-by shooting victim Weusi Olusola inspires with cancer battle

Photo by SUSAN TUSA/Detroit Free Press
Photo by SUSAN TUSA/Detroit Free Press
Drive-by shooting victim Weusi Olusola inspires with cancer battle
by ROCHELLE RILEY, Feb. 20, 2009, Detroit Free Press

Weusi Olusola’s second life began two weeks after he got shot.

A 16-year-old All-State basketball star and marching band member at Murray Wright High, he was Willie Brown Jr. then. On August 10, 1986, he was eager to finish his shift at a downtown Hardee’s so he could rush home to meet a pretty girl. He was so eager that he took a cab. He was just a block away from his dad’s house, standing and flirting, when six guys sprayed the corner with gunfire.

Two months later — after four hours of surgery, 60 days of anguish and 86,000 unstoppable seconds of knowing that he wouldn’t walk again — he got a visit from Pistons legend Isiah Thomas asking him to be the grand marshal of an anticrime parade. Two weeks after that, he began speaking to what would become thousands of youths, initially on his own, and 10 years later as part of Pioneers for Peace, a group of living victims who show what gun violence can do.

Twenty-three years later, he is battling Stage 4 bladder cancer and doctors have given him six months to live. But Weusi Olusola wasn’t beaten then, and he isn’t beaten now. He plans to be there on March 7 when the Park West Foundation, which funds family and youth initiatives, fetes him with a lifetime achievement award.

“The number of kids that he has touched personally, that he has made an impact on, I can’t even count,” said Saba Gebrai, program director of the Park West Foundation. “There has not been a school, a community, a hellhole that we have not been in. After homicides, when nobody else is there, there are just a few people you can call. He’s one of them.”

The lifelong Detroiter, who was diagnosed two months ago, said the March event also is to raise funds for a miracle. It won’t be the first.

Miracle One.

The guys who shot him? Their targets were in a bungalow three houses down from where he stood, men Olusola had sold marijuana for when he was 14. He and best friend were on a wrong corner that year when their bosses’ rivals did a drive-by. His best friend was killed. Olusola didn’t get a scratch. But he did the see the light.

“That’s what turned my life around,” he said. “It made me say ‘Wow, life is too short.’ So I focused on school and began working at Hardee’s. My family was so proud of me. I was playing ball. I was in the band. I was in the concert, marching and jazz bands, so I was trying for two scholarships in basketball and music.”

Miracle Two.

A bullet fired from a .357 Magnum that August day two years later hit him so hard, it moved his heart out of place. “The doctor said three days later that it moved back on its own,” he said. “They said they had never seen such a thing.”

He carries the scar over his heart now. He also carries two bullets still, constant reminders of his purpose. He wasn’t supposed to play basketball and play music. He was supposed to save lives and train others.

Weusi Olusola sees his greatest work all the time. They are making his footsteps now.

Like Vitorio Penzabene, a 23-year-old artist and rapper whose day job is at an Auburn Hills solar panel company. Seven years ago, he met Olusola when he was a student at Randolph Vocational Technical School, and all of his role models were in prison.

Penzabene eventually joined Pioneers for Peace, but he kept selling drugs.

“My father was deep into drugs and my cousins were, so when they went to the penitentiary, I started doing it,” he said. “They were my role models. More than that, I felt like I had to be somebody else’s role model. Since they taught me the game, I was supposed to be a leader in that game.”

Penzabene’s little sister turned him in, and Olusola gave him a choice.

“Weusi said it’s going to come a time where you’ll have to make a decision to either live the faith that’s not meant for you, or to change up. When I spoke at that school that day, and he told his story, I thought if I was to end up in a wheelchair that would be the ultimate shame since I had the example right in front of me. And I stopped and never looked back.

“I have to remind myself that I’ve got a greater purpose,” Penzabene said. “I’m human and I have the same financial troubles in this recession. But when I leave those schools after the programs are over, the kids look at me like I looked at Weusi. If I leave one of those schools, and the next day they see me on the news, anything I’ve done to help them change their lives will be reversed. And I can’t have that on my conscience.”

That was Miracle Three.

Olusola said the March 7 award should go to his wife of 17 years, his “Queen,” Nadiya, and to his late mother, Dawn Brown, “who put her life on hold so mine could continue.” March 7 is his mother’s birthday.

“I’ve come to the point where I’m OK with people knowing,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of love and support out here. Let’s celebrate what we’ve accomplished and look forward to being able to do a lot more. My spirit is strong.”

For more about the Weusi Olusola achievement ceremony at 4 p.m. March 7 at the Park West Gallery, 29469 Northwestern Highway, in Southfield, call Michelle Birchard at 248-204-8414 or at mbirchard@parkwest

Contact ROCHELLE RILEY at 313-223-4473 or at

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