Hazel Lewis laughed as she fondly remembered the bright smile of her son, Semaj.
“Everyone loved his smile,” Lewis said. “Especially women. That’s mostly what everyone remembers him for. Every time he’d greet somebody, it would be with a hug and a kiss. He was definitely a hugger and a kisser and very affectionate. That was who he was.”
Semaj was warm and personable, multitalented and had a wealth of friends from all walks of life. That he was on top of the world made his Aug. 10 death all the more shocking.
The Hahnville native passed away at the age of 19, just two months shy of his 20th birthday, and Hazel and her husband, Stephen, are trying to move forward as they cope with his loss. It’s a process both admit has not come easy.
“I have a great group of friends, a great job at Shell Norco (which has helped with coping),” Stephen said. “But right now, it’s really starting to hit home. When his friends leave … when people leave, it sets in that he’s gone.“As a family, it’s very hard. I don’t know what to tell my wife when she breaks down. I’m still learning what to say because I don’t know yet. What makes it more difficult now is his birthday is this Saturday. We’re just getting through this.”
Semaj was attending the University of Louisiana-Monroe on an athletic scholarship, which he’d earned after a stellar track and field career at De La Salle High School in New Orleans. He was the state champion of the 60-meter dash at the 2015 LHSAA Indoor Track and Field Championship, where he qualified for five events. Lewis followed in his father’s footsteps, who also ran track at De La Salle. Semaj was also a standout football star and had offers to play both sports at the next level.
He also loved painting and put his artistic talents to good use. He enjoyed customizing shoes, and he’d also recently become a tattoo artist.
“Everything he put his mind to, he did a great job at it,” Hazel said. “He had a real big personality and he had an impact on a lot of people.
“He was just a really good kid. This happened and we still don’t know what this was about entirely. He (battled) depression … but he had so many passions. He loved life.”
Added Stephen, “I can honestly tell you, I was totally blindsided by this. With drugs, you can see it … with alcohol, you can smell it. But depression is something that, if you don’t want anyone to see it, no one can see it.”
Semaj’s friends had difficulty grasping his loss. Since his passing, Stephen has spoken to them about life and its pressures. Most of all, he wants all of them to know there are people willing to lend a listening ear and helpful hand, if only they reach out for that help.
“My generation and their generation speak two different languages, but they need to know we’re here for them,” he said. “I expressed to a lot of his friends that even if they feel they can’t go to their parents, hey, you can come to me and I’ll do my best to help you get the help you need.
Mental health is something that needs conversation in households. People need to know that life is gonna be hard sometimes, but it’s okay to talk about it.”
This thought has inspired him to reach out to others who have suffered the same kind of loss and to let them know they’re not alone.
The family also plans to create the “Semaj Smiles” memorial fund by next year.
“We want to get out in the community and build awareness on suicide prevention and mental health, and to reward kids for doing the right things and being productive in society,”
Stephen said. “It makes me smile just thinking about it.”It would be a fitting tribute for someone like Semaj, who not only harnessed his many talents but touched so many other lives. Perhaps the best representation of the mark he left came after the service held for him at St. Charles Borromeo, where Semaj once went to school.
“Their principal pulled me aside and let me know that some of the faculty members said they’d never seen, in the history of St. Charles Borromeo Church being there, there ever being that many people on the grounds,” said Hazel. “It shows the legacy he left, I guess. Everywhere he went he left a mark.”
Both Hazel and Stephen say the outpouring of local support following their son’s death has been deeply appreciated.
“What I’m so proud of the most was just seeing the effect my child had on so many people’s lives,” Stephen said. “The diverse people there … people he was honestly friends with. It really showed me that my wife and I did the right thing, and that God really blessed us with a beautiful son.
“As a dad, you could not ask for a better kid. Not once did he ever back talk me. I just try to think about all the good times we had, and we had so many good times.”