Gabriel Giron has dedicated himself to coaching people through hard times for well over a decade, but he had no way of anticipating the “sledgehammer” that was 2020 or how it would test him. Over and over and over.
Spoken word. Yoga. Meditation. Mindfulness techniques. These were skills the U.S. Army veteran and cancer survivor studied and practiced to better reach troubled youth, motivate corporate audiences, and uplift communities and organizations as the executive director of the nonprofit organization Speak It Forward and co-founder of spoken-word performance duo Kinetic Affect. Giron has needed all of these skills and more to navigate a year of devastating losses, professional turmoil and an uncertain future in the midst of a pandemic.
“I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through this last year without those tools in my bag,” Giron admits.
During nearly four hours of phone interviews, Giron thoughtfully reflected, cursed, laughed, breathed deeply and frequently sobbed. When asked at one point if it was all too much to discuss, Giron chuckle-grunted between tears and said,
“It’s still in there. It’s got to come out one way or another. God, I’ve told this story a hundred times too.”
‘I Just Lost It’
The soft-spoken, cherub-like Giron and the chiseled, intense Kirk Latimer met at a Kalamazoo poetry competition and discovered they each had experienced trouble and trauma as teenagers and young adults. They joined forces to create
Kinetic Affect in 2007 and the nonprofit organization Speak It Forward in 2009. They gained statewide attention in 2011 with their viral “Michigan Poem” and quickly become an auditorium-filling powerhouse of positivity.
As Kinetic Affect, they performed at schools, universities, foundations and in communities across the country. Corporate clients included Stryker Corp. and General Motors. Kinetic Affect competed on America’s Got Talent and Amateur Night at The Apollo, while Speak It Forward garnered grant support for its community-based efforts to help others share their stories.
“Kinetic Affect was when we got to share our stories. Speak It Forward was when we had the honor of supporting others in discovering and sharing theirs with power and purpose,” Giron says.
The duo lived their lives as open books. They called each other brother. On Sept. 3, 2020, Latimer wrote on his personal Facebook page: “There is one person who would never let me escape. Who would never let me hide behind my excuses and self-hatred. A man who would teach me not only how to love others, but how to, most of all, love myself. We have been through so much after all these years. Such beautiful highs and such horrifying lows. And yet, no matter what, no matter how hard or painful, he stood there with me. Even when I didn’t deserve a helping hand, he showed me the power of unconditional, difficult as hell, love. I wanted to share this because I share a lot of surface stuff. I joke; I complain. I do a great job of pointing out all the s—, I neglect to shine a light on what blessings there are. That’s exactly what Gabriel Giron has taught me. Showed me. Done FOR me. Held on and grew through the worst and best of times. And I feel like we are only just getting started.”
Latimer and Giron met every Monday to discuss the work of Kinetic Affect and Speak It Forward, and their routine meeting on Sept. 7 went well, says Giron. Despite the ongoing pandemic’s effect on their work, they were preparing to announce a restructuring of Speak It Forward to include longtime collaborator and local activist Ed Genesis as a co-director. The move would involve more community-level work with local youth to try to prevent them from ending up in the juvenile justice system.
“(Kirk) looked fine,” Giron says. “We had a great meeting. I gave him a big-ass hug, and I told him I loved him. I’m really glad that’s the last thing I said to him in person.”
The next morning Latimer called Giron to say he didn’t feel well. Latimer thought he was having a panic attack and was checking himself into a hospital. He texted later that morning that he experienced atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heartbeat, had received intravenous therapy, was improving and should be “100” soon. Not one to disappoint others, he apologized for needing to miss the next day’s meeting with Giron and Genesis.
That afternoon, Kirk’s wife Gretchen called Giron to say Latimer needed to be intubated. Giron says he was concerned, but that she sounded optimistic and told him it was “mostly for observation.” He planned to visit Latimer the next morning. Before bed, Giron says he meditated, sending positive energy to Latimer.
Giron woke up around 7 a.m. the next morning, and noticed a series of missed calls from Latimer’s dad.
“I knew that couldn’t be good,” Giron says. “I called him immediately, and he was, as you can imagine, he was like, ‘Gabe, I don’t know what to tell you. Kirk didn’t make it.’ I just lost it. I fell on the floor and was just crying.”
Thyroid complications caused the 40-year-old organs to fail, Giron says doctors told the family. Late Tuesday night, as Latimer’s condition worsened, doctors attempted to put a catheter in his heart to stabilize him for a helicopter transport to a Grand Rapids hospital. Each time they tried, his heart stopped. Doctors told the family they were keeping him alive by machine.
“(Kirk) told me several times he never wanted to be a vegetable. ‘Don’t ever let me be hooked up to a machine. That’s not how I want to live,’” Giron says..
Latimer’s family knew that as well and honored his request shortly after 2 a.m.
“They all got to be on speaker phone and to tell him that …” Giron says, before going silent for several seconds, “… tell him that they loved him. And then he passed.”
Don Nitz, who had worked in the Kalamazoo juvenile justice system since the late 1970s and was the CEO at Lakeside Academy for 12 years, until his retirement in 2018, recounts how much he loved working with Latimer and Giron. Nitz knew he wanted to bring them in to work with the kids at Lakeside after seeing the duo perform at Chenery Auditorium in 2010.
Nitz thought the duo’s authenticity, energy and honesty would mesh well with the anger management and counseling services offered at the residential youth treatment facility for young people ages 12 to 18.
Coincidentally, Giron and Latimer’s new nonprofit, Speak It Forward, was in need of a consistent home. Coming off the heels of the economic difficulties of 2008-09, they watched as other nonprofits struggled to find adequate, reliable funding. They didn’t want to be in a similar situation so they sought out a consistent, renewable contract.
Speak It Forward and Lakeside Academy entered into what became a 10-year partnership. Giron says Lakeside was the first organization to embrace Speak It Forward’s work over the long haul.
“I don’t regret a minute of it. Not one,” Nitz said in an interview in February. “It’s really about turning around lives and they were significant in the nine to 10 years they were there to turn around a lot of lives. They had a tremendous impact on hundreds of lives. I loved Kirk, and I still love Gabe. And they know it.”
Gina Huffman, a Lakeside student from 2009-12, remembers the day Speak It Forward came to campus. Latimer beamed smiles in his suit and tie, and Giron wore an outfit that matched head-to-toe. They told students they would help them use poetry and spoken word to heal.
“I was so happy. I felt like I was their star pupil. I was given so many opportunities from that,” Huffman says. “There were a lot of ups and downs, but that was an outlet that made everyone feel like they were at home — you didn’t feel judged.”
Huffman, now 26, lives in Flint and runs a residential cleaning company with her mother. She says she makes a point to hire women who need a second chance, a lesson absorbed from her time with Latimer and Giron. “Lily” is the title of one of the first poems she wrote with Latimer and Giron while at Lakeside and when she married last year, she wore lily of the valley in her hair. Her email address also references the flower.
“They are with me always,” she says of Giron and Latimer.
In March 2020, Covid-19 arrived and Speak It Forward’s work with the more than 120 students at the 48-acre Lakeside Academy halted.
Then, on May 1, barely a month after a statewide lockdown in connection with Covid-19 took effect, 16-year-old Lakeside student Cornelius Fredericks died two days after going into cardiac arrest while being restrained by facility staff. Police reports say Fredericks was restrained after throwing a sandwich. The Kalamazoo County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled his death a homicide, and three Lakeside staffers were charged with involuntary manslaughter and second-degree child abuse and ordered to stand trial in circuit court. (As of press time, no trial date has been set.)
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services opened an investigation into the facility. The story made national headlines and calls to shut down Lakeside Academy intensified through the spring.
Police told MLive.com they received a spike in reports about the facility in the days following Fredericks’ death and that Lakeside had shown a “pattern of being out of control” since the start of the year. Police reports show an increase in calls to the facility for fights and runaways. On May 7, the facility reported 37 students and nine staff members tested positive for Covid-19 (Fredericks had also tested positive). An extensive investigation by Michigan Radio into troubles at
Lakeside showed yearly increases in incidents in which staff members restrained students.
On June 2, in the midst of the state’s investigation into Lakeside, Giron’s cousin, Taylor Gesmundo, died of a drug overdose. He was 32. Gesmundo joined the U.S. Marines in 2006 and served two deployments, including one to Afghanistan. Giron says Gesmundo struggled with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and had lived off-and-on with Giron over a 9-year span.
“He’d come stay with me when he was really struggling, and I’d get him on his feet, providing a supportive and healthy environment,” Giron says. “He’d feel good enough to go out on his own again. Inevitably, he’d struggle with drug use — heroin, specifically. It was really tough to see someone that you love and care about so much go through that. He was such a kind, sweet and caring individual that I think he was never able to forgive himself for what he was asked to do in Afghanistan.”
“I think it’s important to talk about these things,” Giron says of his cousin’s overdose. “There’s a lot of shame in our country around drugs and mental health. But we’ll never be able to heal if we can’t acknowledge the wounds.”
The pandemic had created a backlog of veterans’ funerals at Fort Custer National Cemetery in Augusta, but eventually Gesmundo’s family was able to hold a service for him there. As fate would have it, it fell on Friday, Sept. 18 — the day before Giron was to participate in the memorial service for Kirk that the Latimer family was holding in Detroit.
But months before those services, Giron experienced yet another major loss. On June 19, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services terminated its contract with and funding for Lakeside Academy, resulting in the facility’s closure.
“The system really had an opportunity to make a change in that facility, and instead, they just kicked the can down the road,” Giron says. “The kids scattered. I’m sure some of them went to better facilities, but I’m also sure some of them went to worse facilities. Some of them went into environments that were extremely dangerous.”
One of those students was 17-year-old Daimair Bowden, who was shot and killed July 5 in Columbus, Ohio, following a fight, according to media reports. Giron believes other former Lakeside students they worked with met similar violence, but, because of privacy laws, the pair could not get contact information for their former students. Giron also says he watched good, hard-working people employed in what can be a challenging, thankless occupation, lose their jobs.
“It was tough,” he says. “It was emotional for Kirk and I on multiple levels. It was financially stressful for the organization. We weren’t sure what was going to happen. It was emotionally upsetting because one of the students in our classroom passed away. It was emotionally upsetting because this home we had for 10 years was getting shut down, and a lot of people we had built close relationships with were now trying to find out what they were going to do.
“We really loved being with those kids. Of all that stuff, that was the hardest. We didn’t get to say goodbye.”
Time For ‘Kirk Work’
Latimer’s Kalamazoo memorial service at the Arcadia Creek Festival Site in downtown Kalamazoo on Oct. 19 celebrated the former English teacher turned motivational speaker, mentor and community advocate in generous fashion, Giron says.
Much of the costs associated with the festival site, including rental, sound and video equipment, tents and food, was covered by friends of Kinetic Affect. Giron created and edited the memorial video remembering his partner-in-poetry, and attendees, including Latimer’s 12-year-old son, Ethan, shared stories and performed.
“Everybody showed up and were like, ‘We’re here.’ I want to say ‘incredible,’ but it was more than that. I couldn’t have done it without Kalamazoo,” Giron says. “I think the only thing Kirk ever really wanted was to be seen and be loved. To watch the response from his passing, it made me realize how much we were, but how much we didn’t know it at the time.”
One of those who loved them was Kalamazoo community activist and rapper Ed Genesis. When Latimer and Giron surprised him by naming him co-director of Speak It Forward, Genesis says, “I about fell out of my chair.” Genesis met the duo at an event at former Kalamazoo City Commissioner Shannon Sykes’ house, started mentoring students at Lakeside Academy and over time became Speak It Forward’s lead mentor. Genesis says he’s a three-time felon who turned his life around and wanted to help youth avoid that path. People’s perception of his criminal record made that difficult, but Latimer and Giron helped get him there, he says.
“Gabe and Kirk gave me a chance to speak to these young guys and ladies, and they looked just like me,” Genesis says. “I knew immediately this is where I had to be.”
Genesis encouraged Speak It Forward to become more active with Kalamazoo’s Black community on a neighborhood level, an effort that went into overdrive with Genesis’ new position with Speak It Forward. The trio had big post-pandemic plans, Genesis says.
Genesis and Latimer bonded over being “unapologetically ourselves,” says Genesis, and he drew inspiration from Latimer’s work ethic. He equates watching an exhausted Latimer take the stage for a performance with Michael Jordan’s famous “flu game,” in which the star excelled under the lights despite being less than 100 percent — a memory that serves as fuel for Genesis’s future.
“Even if I don’t feel like bringing it or I want to shut it down,” he says, “I know I owe it to my brother. I’ve got ‘Kirk work’ to do.”
As part of their work together last summer, Genesis asked Giron to bring his camera to an event. Giron double majored in film, video and media studies and creative writing at Western Michigan University and had mothballed his camera years earlier, but was excited to take it out and reacquaint himself with visual arts.
After graduating from WMU in 2008, Giron had planned to pursue a master’s degree in film editing at Columbia College in Chicago. Then he met Latimer, who was teaching high school English in Portage. Giron says it was Latimer who made the initial move to make Kinetic Affect a reality.
“Then Kirk, being who he is, took a sabbatical from his job,” Giron says, “and I was like, ‘Oh s—, I can’t leave. This dude is like 100 percent committed to what we are doing.’ I ended up staying and turning down a scholarship to get my master’s degree.”
Giron returned to video-editing for Latimer’s memorial video. As a form of emotional support shortly after Latimer’s death, Giron drove to New York City, picked up his father, Ruben Giron, and drove back to Kalamazoo. Ruben Giron, an avid nature photographer, brought his editing equipment, and the two took photos together. Giron says it was therapeutic and strangely circular.
“I had no idea what I was going to do in my life when I met Kirk. Now Kirk passes. I’m older, with a lot more experience and connections in the community. I have Speak It Forward, which I love and want to continue doing, but there’s this
Kinetic Affect-sized hole in my life,” Giron says. “Here I am again, back almost to the same point where I was in college. ‘Maybe I’ll do something in film and photography?’ There was something that just tickled me about it. No matter how far you travel, life brings you back to the things you were meant to be in touch with.”
Giron has found solace and joy in photography. Some of his favorite subjects are Shiva “Handsome” Giron, his 10-year-old pitbull terrier, and Latimer’s son and his godson, Ethan, whom Giron has spent several weekends with since the fall.
They go on hikes, play video games and remember.
“I’ll never replace Kirk,” Giron says, “but to just be there as a positive male role model in his (Ethan’s) life and as Kirk’s best friend, to be able to be there and just tell stories — it’s healing for both of us. I get to stay connected to Kirk in such a profound way.”
On Nov. 24, Giron shared a “goodbye letter” to Kinetic Affect followers through social media, an email blast and the group’s Facebook page. It featured a video tribute to Latimer and thanked the community for the duo’s 14-year journey. It read, in part, “I am forever grateful for the lessons I’ve learned from Kirk. I will always be in awe of his dedication to the youth in our communities, of his passion to inspire others and for helping everyone dream larger than we ever could have without him.”
Giron, who recently accepted the role of lead facilitator with Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Kalamazoo, says Speak It Forward’s work will continue, shifting its mission to be more community focused. The nonprofit is staying “small and nimble” with workshops and virtual events until the pandemic allows for group activities. It is on stable financial ground for the rest of this year, thanks to grant support and a “generous and encouraging board,” he says.
“All this comes with a tinge of sadness, but I’m excited about what we are going to do in the future,” Giron says. “I never saw myself doing this without Kirk. I’m glad I can do it with someone who is just as passionate and loud as Kirk was, but in a different way.”
“This has been one of the toughest, most life-shattering years of my life but I’m trying to find the positive in all this,” he says. “Speak It Forward was all about teaching people how to turn their scars into beauty marks. Now I have to figure out how to do that in a way I never imagined.”