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A Little Boy, a Stray Bullet, a Life Lost

It’s a ritual performed countless times each year, one familiar to parents across Southern California.

You haul the kids to your local park, fill out forms, hand over fees and sign them up for basketball or soccer or softball . . . whatever the sport at hand.

It’s the most mundane of chores, just another trip to squeeze into that after-work time, between grocery shopping and helping with homework.

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A task that’s not supposed to explode in tragedy, not supposed to claim the life of a little boy and rob a baby of his sight.

But that’s what happened this week to an Inglewood family, whose trip to their local park landed them in the midst of a gang fight and changed their lives forever.

It was the first night to register for winter basketball, and 7-year-old Evan Foster couldn’t wait to sign up. He’d been watching the bigger kids play for years and dreamed of the day he’d be old enough to join.

That desire is what brought Evan, his mother, Rhonda Foster, and his 10-month-old brother, Alec, to Inglewood’s Darby Park on Monday night. His mother signed him up for the park’s Tom Thumb league--for its littlest players--then buckled the kids back into the car for the drive home.

But they never made it out of the parking lot. Evan was shot to death as he sat in the back seat. His baby brother, sitting next to him, was hit in the eye by bullet fragments.

Police say gang members fired the fatal shots, aiming at a man near the Fosters’ car who they believed was from a rival gang.

Their target escaped unhurt. But the Foster family suffered a heart-wrenching wound.

I don’t know the Fosters, but friends describe them as a typical family, like mine or yours: Ruett and Rhonda and their two boys . . . now one boy.

His teachers say Evan was an exceptional child--"bright, bubbly, generous . . . and very kind"--but that’s not really the point.

No child should die simply because he wanted to play basketball. And no mother should have to sit helplessly by and watch the life drain out of her son, when all she was trying to do was make his dream come true.

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The account in our newspaper was terse, straightforward:

Rhonda Foster tried to back up, away from the shots, but several rounds hit her car. When she screeched to a halt, she noticed that Evan was slumped over in his seat and Alec’s head was bleeding.

She grabbed the baby, ran inside the recreation center, handed him to a man and asked him to call the police. She ran back to the car and tried in vain to give aid to her older son. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

I cannot read it without weeping.

Can you imagine the horror that mother felt, as she looked up and saw the gun pointed her way and tried frantically to move her car--her family--out of danger? As she heard the shots and turned toward her sons and saw the baby, still strapped in his car seat, with blood gushing from his face? As she tried to rouse Evan--shaking him, calling his name--then realized he was dead?

Moments before, he’d been jabbering on about playing basketball--the uniform he’d wear, the shots he’d make. . . . Then a barrage of bullets tore through the car’s windshield and hood and pierced his head, striking with such force they shredded the car’s seat behind him.

Evan probably never knew what hit him.

That, his parents say, is something to be grateful for. It was as if, his father said later, “He was talking to his mom in a happy mood, and in mid-sentence, was escorted by the angels to Jesus.”

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The park where Evan Foster loved to play--and where he died--stands in the shadow of the Great Western Forum, just blocks from an area so dominated by gang members that county prosecutors got a court order this year to keep them from congregating on the streets.

Still, the park has always been a haven of safety, an area free of violence where neighborhood kids could grow up oblivious to the hazards of the streets near their homes. And Evan did. He attended preschool there, and summer camp, and knew every swing and slide and climbing tree like it was in his own backyard.

I find myself thinking about my own local park, where my daughters have played basketball and taken ballet lessons and climbed trees . . . and where I’ve never had to worry about gangsters in the parking lot or assault weapons aimed at us.

I feel a rush of gratitude . . . and then guilt, for taking for granted what so many people search so hard to find.

It is a blessing, I realize--the ease with which my children and I can go about our daily lives. And it is a shame that we’ve made peace of mind a luxury that many families cannot afford.

And I recall a moment last weekend, when I was shopping with my daughters at an upscale mall in Woodland Hills and I noticed a group of teenage boys--baggy pants, shaved heads--facing off and yelling at each other.

I quickly changed direction and shepherded my children away from the scene. I could hear the loud voices of the boys behind me, and my own heart pounding in my ears. Were they going to start shooting, should we run, hit the floor?

When I looked back, the boys were laughing--no weapons, no gang fight, just a group of teenagers on raucous display.

I am not so different from Rhonda Foster. But I was lucky. I got my children safely home that day.

Rhonda Foster was not. And my heart goes out to her.

* Sandy Banks’ column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.


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