On Friday, National Gun Violence Awareness Day, the Oakland Raider and thousands of others will don the bold hue for the 5th annual Wear Orange campaign
“I’m a big shoe guy so I have a lot of shoes,” the 26-year-old Texas native tells PEOPLE. “Some I’ve worn, some I haven’t, so this is the perfect occasion to bring these out.”
Wear Orange started in 2015, two years after 15-year-old high school honor student and drum majorette Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed on Jan. 29, 2013, in Chicago — just one week after she performed with her high school marching band at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
An accidental casualty of gang violence, Pendleton was shot in a South Side park where she and friends had taken shelter from the rain.
Washington is taking part in the eye-catching movement in honor of his “sister” and best friend, Taeisha Watkins, 27, of Fresno, Texas, who was killed on July 28, 2018, when gunmen opened fire in a New Orleans parking lot.
“It was senseless,” he says.
The two grew up in the same house and while she wasn’t his biological sibling, he considers her his sister because they were so close.
“She was my best friend,” he says.
“If you weren’t having the best day you could always call on my sister and you could guarantee by the time y’all got through talking you would cheer up a little bit.”
“Her energy was just contagious. People loved being around her, people migrated to her. She was very outgoing and loved being with her family and with her friends.”
Watkins was out with her friends during a girls’ weekend in New Orleans when she lost her life.
She was standing in a crowd that had gathered outside a daiquiri shop and restaurant when two people began firing into the crowd, Nola.com reports.
Among the three people shot and killed was Washington’s sister.
At first, he couldn’t believe that she was gone.
• For more on DeAndre Washington and the Wear Orange campaign, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
“I was just with her right before she went on the trip before I left for camp,” he says. “I remember her talking about the trip and that she was going down there with the girls. I didn’t know that would be the last time I would see her.”
The news was more than devastating.
“It’s not really a feeling I can describe,” he says. “You kind of just go numb for a while.”
Her family — her mother, Taamika Watkins, her father Cedell Watkins and her two younger brothers, Cedell and Jaelon, are reeling from her death.
Even more heartbreaking is that Watkins left behind a 5-year-old daughter, Carysn Swain.
“Those two were inseparable,” he says. “Now she has to grow up without her mother,” he says.
Dressing for Change
To try to make sure no one else has to endure the pain that he and his family have, Washington is now taking part in the Wear Orange campaign.
On Friday, “I’m pretty sure I will be oranged out, honestly,” he says.
He hopes that will help spread the word about preventing gun violence.
“I hope people understand that you don’t have to turn to a gun for every incident,” he says. “People are just so quick to pick up a gun for any disagreement. In the big picture, is it really worth it?”
After the Wear Orange campaign ends, Washington says he’ll continue to let the world know “what a bright light Taeisha was,” he says.
Even though she’s not here physically, he says, “I can still feel her presence. There will be random times of the day when I’m reading a book or listening to a song that makes me think about her and I get the chills and feel her around me. Her boundless energy.
“That’s why I consider her my angel.”