‘It’s all about Ben now’: Indiana community supports 11-year-old who lost parents to domestic violence

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‘It’s all about Ben now’: Indiana community supports 11-year-old who lost parents to domestic violence

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Ben Watkins, 11, holds a photo collage of his late parents, Leila Edwards and Michael Watkins, in his grandparents' Gary, Ind., home on October 10, 2017. (Jerry Davich/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

GARY, Ind. — Ben insisted on only one thing for this column.

“I want a picture of my mom and my dad,” the 11-year-old boy said while looking through his iPad for just the right photos of his deceased parents.

“I want to use these,” he said after taking a few minutes to create a digital collage and holding it up to show me.

“Is that what you want, Ben?” asked his maternal grandmother, Donna Edwards.

“Yes,” Ben replied.

“OK, that’s fine,” Edwards said sweetly.

On Sept. 16, Ben’s father, Michael Watkins, 46, shot and killed Ben’s mother, Leila Edwards, 43, before taking his own life in their home in Gary’s Miller section, according to police. Investigators ruled it a murder-suicide.

Leila Edwards’ mother, Donna Edwards, and her younger brother, Anthony Edwards, told me they saw no warning signs and don’t know exactly what caused Watkins to do what he did.

“Sometimes it’s better not to know,” Donna Edwards said softly in the dining room of her Miller home where Ben now lives.

The couple were talking about getting a divorce, Anthony Edwards said.

“It’s been an obvious adjustment for Ben, but he’s doing well, considering everything,” Anthony Edwards told me last week while Ben finished his dinner. “We take it one day at a time.”

“And a lot of prayers,” Donna Edwards added.

The Edwards family moved to Miller from Chicago in 2001. They said they wanted to escape the big city’s notable crime elements.

Ben, who turned 11 four days after his parents’ deaths, is a fifth-grader in Chesterton. He also attends several extracurricular activities, including spell bowl, math bowl and chess club. And he volunteers near his home to help rebuild broken bicycles for kids in need.

“It’s called Build a Bike,” Ben said.

He is an aspiring chef whose favorite school subjects are math and science, which explains his other career goal of becoming an engineer.

“It’s more reliable than being a chef,” Ben said, sounding older than his age.

He lived with his parents just a couple of miles away from his new home, near Wirt-Emerson Visual and Performing Arts High Ability Academy. His weekday evenings are packed with homework, playing video games and walking the family’s dogs.

“Is it one of your chores?” I asked him.

“No, I just like helping out,” he replied.

Ben hopes to someday open his own restaurant, like his father did in Miller with Big Ben’s Bodacious Barbecue & Deli. Yes, it was named in honor of Ben.

“Ben’s father always had a dream to open his own barbecue restaurant,” Anthony Edwards said.

Ben smiled when he heard this fond memory from his uncle.

When Watkins’ restaurant opened in January, Ben helped his father, working the cash register, taking customers’ orders and selling his own homemade baked goods.

“Cookies, brownies, cinnamon rolls, banana bread, lots of other stuff,” Ben recalled proudly.

“He’s quite the little chef,” Anthony Edwards said. “He enjoys baking because of the science behind it.”

Ben smiled again.

His mother was a talented stained glass artist and jewelry maker who taught her many skills to school students, curious friends and, of course, to Ben.

“My mom taught me everything she knew,” Ben said. “Or I just picked it up by watching her.”

His mother operated Wonderland Stained Glass, located adjacent to her husband’s restaurant, across from the Flamingo pizza restaurant. It remains open, but the restaurant has been closed since Sept. 16.

“We’re trying to figure out if we should reopen it or not,” said Anthony Edwards, a casino boat security officer.

Ben hopes to resurrect it someday to continue his parent’s dual dream. Still, he’s only 11.

“The world is placed at his feet,” Donna Edwards said, looking across the table at him.

I asked how she’s able to get through the grief and pain that only a mourning mother can feel.

“It’s all about Ben now,” she replied.

“But,” she replied with a smile, “It’s always been all about Ben, since his birth.”

“Ben is the best gift my sister ever gave us,” Anthony Edwards added. “And the best gift she could ever leave us.”

Members of Ben’s school community and Miller residents have created an educational trust fund for his future. They want to ensure Ben can continue his education in the culinary arts or engineering.

“Ben is a remarkable young man,” said Trent McCain, an attorney who helped organize the fund. “He makes a lasting impression on everyone he meets.”

McCain, a parent at the school in Chesterton, added, “In his 11 years, he has had to endure more loss than any young person should. That is why we, as a community, wanted to pull together and show him that he is not alone. We love him and we will always be here for him.”

McCain and others also organized a benefit for Ben’s trust fund, scheduled from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 23. The cost is $25, which includes wine and beer tasting, food from local restaurants, a silent auction and guest bartenders.

“Every penny goes to Ben’s trust fund,” said co-organizer Jasen Andersen, of Miller.

Ben’s family had nothing to do with the event, but are touched by the gesture of kindness.

“Can I be there if I want to?” Ben asked his uncle and grandmother.

“Of course,” Anthony Edwards replied.

Again, Ben smiled.

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