The sound of the gunshot pierced through the summer morning heat, startling the men inside the barber shop.

Outside, 30-year-old Cortes Randolph, father of two sons, ages 9 and 1, lay on the sidewalk. The bullet, he would later learn, entered his chest and shattered his spine. Looking up, he saw the face of his oldest son standing at the door of the Southwest Decatur shop and pleaded to God.

“Please don’t let me die. Please let me be around for my sons. Please don’t let them grow up without a father. Please don’t let me die,” Randolph prayed.

He uttered the prayer in the ambulance to Huntsville Hospital, in the elevator on his way to emergency surgery and as the medical staff placed him under anesthesia.

“Right before I went out, I heard God go, ‘I got you,’ ” Randolph said.

Now, five years later, Randolph pointed to the May 31, 2014, shooting that left him paralyzed from the chest down as a pivotal point in his life.

“My life turned around for the positive. I thank God for leading me to this day, for bringing me to this point and for allowing me to share what I’ve been through,” the Decatur native now living in Florence said. “God has given me my purpose in life, to reach the youth, help them turn their lives around and give people who feel like giving up, hope. It’s never too late.”

Two years ago, Randolph started sharing his story of trials, tribulations, second chances and survival at schools, detention centers and churches.

He dubbed the ministry Walk with Me.

“God gave me the vision to go back into the community and pull people closer to him. We all have a story to tell and there is someone out there who needs to hear it,” Randolph said.

Randolph’s story begins on the streets of Decatur, growing up in poverty in a single parent home with no stable male role model.

At the age of 12, Randolph learned the father of his brother, the man he called “Dad,” was not his biological father. He became bitter, angry, defiant and violent.

“Not having that male figure in my life really hurt me. I wanted to know who my father was so bad. I pushed everyone away and started acting out,” Randolph said.

That same year, Randolph, barely tall enough to see out of the window of his cell door, served his first stint in the Tennessee Valley Juvenile Detention Center. He would return more than a dozen times.

In sixth grade, he dropped out of school. At 15, during a dispute over gang territory, Randolph suffered a gunshot wound to his left hand.

“My mother tried her hardest, but she was only able to do so much,” Randolph said. “I felt like I had to be the man of the house and make money. I did things I’m not proud of. I did burglaries, thefts and smoked marijuana at a young age. I caught some serious charges.”

Bruce Jones, director of Decatur Youth Services, an outreach agency formed in 1994 to reach at-risk youth, remembers a young Randolph.

“Cortes’ life is an example of choices we make and how the wrong choices can lead to a life of pain and suffering,” said Jones, who taught Randolph in a Rites of Passage life skills class. “Kids need to hear his story so they won’t choose the path he chose.”

At 17, the court sentenced Randolph for second-degree robbery. He served two years.

“It was horrible. I lost all my friends, or who I thought were my friends,” Randolph said. “When I got out, though, I saw that going to jail was for my own good.”

After being released, he began a relationship with a woman who led him to God.

“Getting to know God was the best thing that could have happened. I still made mistakes, I had a lot of learning to do, but it saved my life,” Randolph said. “If I didn’t know God, I don’t think I would be alive today. The road I was traveling was straight to death. And, when I was shot and I actually faced death, I had God to lean on.”

May 31, 2014, the last day Randolph walked, started simply, with a father and son trip to the barber shop. There, Randolph got in an altercation with a man, who left the shop, only to return minutes later with a gun.

“My son saw me get shot. That’s one of the worst parts of all of this, that he had to see that. It’s my job to protect him,” Randolph said.

Three days after surgery, Randolph woke up in the hospital bed. He learned the medical staff frequently visited his family during the surgery and told them, “It doesn’t look good.” He learned he gained consciousness an hour before the time they set to tell his family he was brain dead. He learned he would never walk again.

“The doctor told me that I shouldn’t be here and that he did everything with the help of the Lord that he could to save me,” Randolph said. “That I was paralyzed almost went over my head because I was so thankful to be alive. Yes, it was hard, but I saw God at work.”

After a month of recovery at Huntsville Hospital and a month of physical therapy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Randolph returned home.

He struggled to adapt to life as a paraplegic. He had to learn how to cook, clean, dress himself, take a bath, go to the restroom and drive a car. Moments of frustration still arise for Randolph, whose sons are now 14 and 6.

“There are things I regret that I can’t do. One of my biggest regrets is that I can’t get on the ground and run around with my kids. That still bothers me. But, when I get frustrated, I find substitutions. I might read or go out into the community and talk with the kids. Now that I know my purpose, I feel more fulfilled,” Randolph said.

For three years, Randolph prayed for God to show him his purpose. Every day, he prayed the same prayer.

“I was never mad at God because I was paralyzed. I was mad that he made me wait for an answer. I kept questioning and questioning. Finally, two years ago, I was in a quiet zone and heard God say, ‘This is not for you. This is for the people that surround you. This is for the community,’ ” Randolph said.

In February, Randolph moved to Florence, where the layouts and rent prices of apartments better suited his needs, and devoted himself to the Walk with Me ministry.

He found a mentor in Dewayne Malone, founder of the Rescue Me Project, a youth mentoring organization that addresses bullying, peer pressure, drugs and alcohol use.

“I think we go through all we do for a reason, for a purpose. I believe we have an obligation to use our past experiences to help somebody else,” said Malone. “Cortes has a very empowering and encouraging story. His heart is genuine and he is in a humble place. He is like a real-life inspirational book that everybody needs to read.”

Last month, Randolph returned to the Tennessee Valley Juvenile Detention Center as the guest speaker.

“He said something that was real powerful that stuck with me. He said, ‘The last time I was here, I walked out, but this time I rolled in.’ He was able to reach the kids. They were zoned in and focused on him,” Malone said.

Like Malone, Jones sees the potential power in Randolph’s testimony.

“He lived the life many of the youth are living right now. They will be able to see the evidence and consequences of the drug life, gang life, dropping out of school and living the street life,” Jones said. “I am so proud of Cortes being willing to tell his story. He could have been mad and angry at the world, but instead he is choosing to make a positive impact in the world.”

While building the Walk with Me ministry, Randolph plans on returning to school and taking classes at Northwest Shoals Community College.

“I’m here to inspire and encourage others. This is my purpose in life. I want to stress to the youth to stay in school and be obedient to their parents and authority. Never give up in school or in life. If I had to do it all over again, I’d sit in my chair behind my desk and pay attention. Don’t let it be too late to make the right decision,” Randolph said.

Groups interested in scheduling Randolph as a guest speaker can contact him at 256-466-0967.

cgodbey@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2441. Twitter @DecaturLiving.

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