“Just tell my story.”
Those were the last words that Michael Muchioki told his best friend and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity brother Kenneth Simpson before Mike and his fiancée Nia Haqq were heinously gunned down by three assailants in front of their Jersey City home hours after their engagement dinner and party April 4, 2010.
Just two months after the crime, Kenneth worked with the couple’s family members and friends to create the non-profit organization, the LoveMikeNia Foundation in their honor. Two years later, Kenneth is still finding new ways to tell Mike’s story and working to ensure Nia’s memory is never forgotten.
In an interview with EBONY.com, Kenneth shared how the legacy of his friends and the LoveMikeNia Foundation are changing lives in New Jersey.
KENNETH SIMPSON: Every year, we host a scholarship banquet and give scholarships to two college students – one from Mike’s school, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and one from Nia’s school, the College of New Jersey. We work with the Equal Opportunity Fund Directors from each school and give them character traits of Mike and Nia and ask them to find potential candidates with a 2.5 G.P.A. or better and we interview them. We select the two recipients based on their community service involvement, their drive and their scholastic achievement – all traits Mike and Nia had. The Foundation decided to have the banquet on the weekend when [Mike and Nia] would’ve gotten married, so every year it’s like a permanent wedding reception for them.
To date, the Foundation has awarded four college students the LoveMikeNia Foundation Memorial Scholarship Award. As the Foundation grows and raises money, we want to give out more scholarships per year. That way, not only will we be helping more students, we’ll also be sharing their story and their legacy with more people.
EBONY: To have this Foundation up and running so soon after this tragedy is really a remarkable feat. How were you and Mike and Nia’s other loved ones able to pull this organization together so quickly?
KS: My adrenaline was pumping so much. I was in such a daze after the tragedy happened in April. By June, we had an organization. It was crazy and I couldn’t do that again. But at the time, I think I really poured my heart and soul into that vision and I refused to have my friend and his fiancée to just be another murder in Jersey City. I just thought, “That’s not going to happen.” I know too many people that die and we just forget about them.
EBONY: So after you have this adrenaline rush and this high that allows you to put this organization together in two months, did you experience any sort of emotional crash once you’d accomplished your goal?
KS: It’s funny that you say that. That’s exactly what happened. It was a crash.
EBONY: How were you able to heal from that?
KS: I had to take all of that energy and focus that I had given to the Foundation and put it on me and taking care of myself. [Mike] taught me that you can be cool and you can be a positive impact on your community, so it was like I came off that high and channeled these different emotions of grief and sadness and happiness about our friendship to do something good. I took all the life lessons and experiences I shared with Mike and decided I needed to make an impact in my own community and city.
I was first appointed to serve on the board of directors of the [non-profit organization] Paterson Task Force for Community Action, Inc., in Paterson, New Jersey, [which has been providing a wide variety of services to the poor and less fortunate in Paterson since 1964]. Once I became comfortable in that position, I started pursuing a role within my city where I could use my civil engineering experience. The Mayor of Paterson [Jeffery Jones] said to me, “I see something in you. I’m going to appoint you to the Historic Preservation Board Commission.” That Commission is charged with evaluating, promoting and preserving the city’s historic environment. Soon after, I received another appointment to serve on the Passaic County Planning Board as a commissioner. That placed me in charge of all county roads, bridges parks and facilities. I’m now doing what Mike and I had talked about throughout our ten-year friendship. People tell me all the time, “Your friendship with Mike was like a training ground for the rest of your life. Everything you do, you can see Mike in it.”
EBONY: What role did his death play in how you view and use time?
KS: It definitely altered my perception of time. I see time differently now. I see now that you can literally be here today and gone tomorrow. So when I want to do something, I do it. I don’t talk about doing it anymore. If you want to do it, let’s do it.
EBONY: Do you think you would still be involved in the community at this level if you didn’t have to suffer through this loss?
KS: I think definitely the things I’m doing now in my community would’ve happened eventually, but because of their deaths, it just happened a lot sooner. It gave me the confidence to ask a Mayor for an appointment to a city commission. It gave me the confidence to talk to anyone on any scale when before I always second guessed myself. Now, if I want to talk to someone, what’s the worst you can say to me? “No?”
Now, I’ve got two communities to look out for, his hometown of Jersey City and mine, Paterson. As long as I’ve got the energy to do it, I’m going to do it.
EBONY: What would you say is the most significant thing that Mike taught you?
KS: He taught me how to be a people person. He taught me that the way you interact with a person is the way you’ll be judged. He never had an enemy and he greeted everybody the same way, from janitor to the CEO. He always had this infectious spirit about him that made you want to get to know him. I make an effort to always smile and be upbeat because that how he was.
EBONY: Do you have any words for the assailants? Is there anything that would bring you peace in the midst of this terrible tragedy?
KS: Well, I’ve been at the pretrial hearings and I saw each one of them individually and looked them in their eyes. I would hope that justice will be served. To the guy [who has been accused of killing not only Mike and Nia, but three other young people as well, in less than three months] a lot of people ask, “Are you mad? Are you mad at him?” I can’t be mad at any one of them because they didn’t know Mike and Nia. They wouldn’t have done this if they knew Mike and Nia. They didn’t even know them and they are going to sit in jail for the rest of their lives. They’re going to be mad at themselves for the rest of their lives. They’re going to stay forever young, stuck in 2010. So I just focus on keeping Mike and Nia’s memory alive.
EBONY: What do you hope the Foundation will be able to achieve?
KS: I want people to learn that it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can achieve anything. Mike was from Jersey City, I’m from Paterson and we both became successful Black men. Nia was a young, Black girl from Trenton and she ended up working at Nickelodeon. I want young Black people to see you can do whatever you want to do.
In the future, I’d like the Foundation to work with Jersey City more and get more community service projects going in Jersey City. Once we strengthen our scholarship funding, we’ll increase our community service portion. We have a three-pronged approach to keep their memory alive: scholarship, community service, and mentoring. I envision our scholars coming back after they’ve received their awards and mentoring the next year’s recipients.
But for now, Delta’s Restaurant in New Brunswick [where the couple had their engagement dinner] created the LoveMikeNia Martini, which we use to raise money for our Memorial Scholarship Fund at our annual scholarship fundraiser held at the restaurant. The martini can also be requested by name throughout the year. And the foundation was able to get the street Mike grew up on in Jersey City renamed “Michael Muchioki Way.” So, for his mother to be able to write her son’s name down when she writes her address, that’s just very powerful. We also were successful in getting Nia’s name mentioned in the official resolution for the street renaming, which was unanimously approved by the Jersey City Council. Both Mike and Nia’s story will forever be recorded within the history of Jersey City.
EBONY: Since “just tell my story,” was an inside joke you and Mike often used to say to each other, what would you have wanted Mike to say about you if the tragedy had been reversed?
KS: If the situation was reversed, he’d say I was greedy for knowledge but not stingy with knowledge. I love sharing knowledge with people. And I want to be remembered for that and for being a positive person living my life in a positive way, just like Mike.
Late last month, Latonia Bellamy, the first of the three assailants, was tried and found guilty of murdering Mike and Nia. She faces 30 years to life imprisonment when she is sentenced in September. For the latest updates, follow LoveMikeNia on Facebook and to donate to the tax-deductible scholarship fund, visit LoveMikeNia.org.
Brooke Obie writes the award-winning blog DistrictDiva.com. Follow her on Twitter @DCDistrictDiva.