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Big sister, big steps

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[Times photos: Jill Sagers]
Jennifer Pedraza, left, walks on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. with her brother Lucas Abrams, 12, second from left, her sister Rachel Pedraza, right, and family friend Elijah Kermani, 6, Sunday during the Million Mom March. Jennifer, who is not a mother, says she participated in the gun-control march because of her six brothers and sisters. “Even though I’m not their mom, I still feel I need to protect them,” she said.

By KATHERINE GAZELLA

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 15, 2000


An area 17-year-old organized a contingent of Tampa Bay residents for the Million Mom March. For attention? No. For her siblings.

WASHINGTON -- Jennifer Pedraza marched down the National Mall Sunday, shepherding her younger brothers and sisters through the tangled crowd.

She held hands with one child and the other five siblings followed obediently. Along with their parents, the seven children bobbed along in the sea of thousands of mothers, fathers and children rallying for stricter handgun control.

Simultaneously, marchers throughout the nation held local events in support of the cause. About 400 marchers met at the Tampa side of the Friendship Trail Sunday afternoon and walked across the span to St. Petersburg, chanting "Moms know best, give guns a rest," and "No more harm," while gun supporters waved signs of their own.

Above the enormous crowd in the nation's capital, Jennifer held her banner aloft: "We're looking for a few good moms."

She is not a mother. But at age 17, the Tarpon Springs resident was one of the younger foot soldiers in the Million Mom March and the fight for tighter gun laws.

Jennifer had spent months organizing the more than 100 Tampa Bay residents who planned to attend the march Sunday. Along the way, she has become a modest but increasingly vocal advocate for stricter gun laws.

Saturday morning, Jennifer and her parents, Lynn Pedraza and Eric Abrams, loaded the younger children on a bus to Washington. They arrived road-weary but in good spirits. Jennifer's sense of purpose was clear: To make the world safer for her little brothers and sisters. Her mother signed up for the march but didn't have time to be the local coordinator. Jennifer jumped in and offered to lead the Tampa Bay group, even while she was enrolled at both Tarpon Springs High School and St. Petersburg Junior College. No matter how busy she got, she made time for her younger brothers and sisters, five of whom were adopted after living with abusive families.

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Jennifer, right, her mother, Lynn, left, her father, Eric Abrams, center, facing away, her brother, Lucas Abrams, center, and family friend Elijah Kermani, center foreground, prepare to leave for Washington on Saturday.

In one way or another, Jennifer Pedraza's entire family has been affected by guns. When she lived in New Mexico, two of her classmates were shot execution-style after a party. Their killer has not been found.

When Lynn Pedraza was teaching middle school, one of her students brought a gun to school. She didn't realize it until the end of the day, but the student had hidden the gun in her locked cabinet.

More than one of Lynn Pedraza's family members were hurt by guns, she said. She didn't want to get into the details, but she said with clear disapproval that some family members still choose to have guns in their homes.

At the Pedraza home, several of the younger siblings recently gathered around the kitchen table. A visitor asked whether they knew what the Million Mom March was about.

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Jennifer, center, family friend Chelsea Kermani, and Jennifer’s mother, Lynn Pedraza, laugh during President Bill Clinton’s speech on the south lawn of the White House on Sunday.

"Guns," they said.

"If people have to get licenses for cars, they should have to get licenses for guns," 10-year-old Melody said with authority.

"Approximately 12 kids a day get killed," 10-year-old Quincy said.

Even at his tender age, Quincy has witnessed more than his share of violence and chaos. Like the other adopted children in the family, he was abused before the Pedraza family took him in.

The children are in a stable family now, but they still recall details from their early years. Jennifer Pedraza worries about them.

"Even though I'm not their mom, I still feel I need to protect them," she said. "They were so young, and they still remember."

In the family's kitchen, Quincy volunteered some information about his birth family. "My brother was in a gang," he said.

Lynn Pedraza heard this, and quickly jumped in to remind him of his brother's missteps. "And now your biological brother is in . . ."

"Jail," Quincy said.

Last year, while watching the movie Tarzan, Quincy became unsettled during a scene where a hunter fires a gun. He broke into tears.

The movie had triggered an awful memory.

"My uncle had a gun, and he was going to shoot someone, but he shot it in the air," he said.

The words flowed out, as though he was eager to tell his story.

Was he scared?

Quincy cast his eyes down and did not speak. Finally, almost imperceptibly, he nodded.

Jennifer Pedraza's interest in gun control has grown because of her concerns about her siblings. Her initial interest in the march, though, came about because Jennifer wanted to help her mom.

Along with raising seven children, Lynn Pedraza is studying for her doctorate and is working as a research assistant at the University of South Florida. So when she was asked to coordinate local participants in the march, she had to say no.

Her daughter stepped in to help. Now, months later, Jennifer Pedraza has grown accustomed to fielding phone calls from people interested in the march.

Not all the calls are friendly. She has received calls from people who yelled at her and told her the march was part of a government conspiracy to take away everybody's guns.

"Someone called just to say, "You're the stupidest person in the world,' " she said.

She appears unfazed by the nasty calls and by her new role as a minor celebrity. Good Morning America and the Oxygen cable channel asked for interviews. Because of logistical problems, neither interview worked out.

Her reaction? She shrugged. No big deal.

She was a bit more impressed with the pageantry at the White House on Sunday morning.

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President Clinton talks with Jennifer, right, and her family Sunday morning after speeches at the White House. Jennifer, 17, organized more than 100 bay area residents to attend the march.
Jennifer and her family rearranged their travel plans so they could attend a ceremony Sunday morning on the south lawn of the White House. Jennifer's father, Eric Abrams, wanted her to meet the Clintons after the event.

"Maybe we should put up a sign behind her that says, "17-year-old coordinator,' " he said.

Lynn Pedraza laughed, but she pointed out that her daughter wouldn't want any special attention.

"As Jennifer will tell you, that's not why she did this," she said.

In the end, Abrams got his wish. The family had a photograph taken with the president, who praised Pedraza after learning what she had done. Hillary Clinton also congratulated the good deed.

"Oh, terrific! You're how old? That's wonderful," she said.

Jennifer smiled at the compliment. Just a few seconds later, though, she turned her attention to sisters Rachel and Melody, who were in tears. The First Lady had signed their brother Joseph's shirt sleeve but had to move through the crowd before signing theirs.

"It's okay," Jennifer said while hugging the girls. "We'll hang up Joseph's shirt in the house."

They nodded, and slowly stopped crying.

-- Times staff writer Ed Quioco contributed to this report.

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The family relaxes after spending the day at the march and related activities. Tens of thousands of people attended the march, which was aimed at promoting gun control.

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