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Survivors speak out about losing loved ones to violence

INGLEWOOD — Losing a loved one to gun violence can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, delinquency, depression, poor academic performance, risky sexual behavior and violent behavior. 

That was the message of the second annual Youth Survivors Speak Out event sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of Mothers in Charge July 27 at the Inglewood City Hall Community Center.

“We are wives, mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters and grandmothers who have lost a loved one due to senseless violence and work to support families and bring grief support and awareness to the issue of gun violence,” said Paula Henderson-Dix, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles branch of the nonprofit organization.

Mothers in Charge was originally founded in 2003 by Dorothy Johnson-Speight in Pennsylvania. Today, there are nine chapters across the country.

According to statistics, homicide continues to be the leading cause of death in African-American communities. The Violence Policy Center found that although blacks represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 50 percent of all homicide victims.

Special guests at the event included Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, who presented Mothers in Charge with a certificate of appreciation for their work with loved ones impacted by homicide; Chaplain Euvonka Farabee of Beyond the Shackles; and Bishop Kenneth Ulmer of Faithful Central Bible Church, who delivered words of encouragement. 

“To the young people in this room, I want you to know that I see you,” Burke said. “I look around the room and I see intelligent, passionate and confident young men and women with a common goal: to improve the neighborhoods we love.” 

During the event, several youths and adults expressed the emotional pain that the toll of gun violence had taken on their lives and families.

Henderson-Dix lost her son Leeban in 2010, just one day before his 21st birthday. Her son’s homicide remains unsolved.

Pausing, she added, “I had a tragedy, but it did not defeat me. It made me know that I had a reason to stand.”

Several youths spoke out during the youth panel, which featured three young people impacted by gun violence.

“I was walking in the parking lot and there was a drive-by shooting. I did not know that I had been shot. It affected me mentally,” Melvin Farmer said.

The tragedy also affected his family.

“My mother closed herself off and my siblings were more traumatized than I was. They would come home crying and screaming because they didn’t know what happened. I didn’t know how to help them.” 

Farmer said he finally received help from the Reverence Project, which practices love and compassion and helps men of color cope with trauma. 

“My dad died before I was born,” said 8 ½ year old Leah. “I was upset and sad, but I am learning more and more about my dad through my grandmother, Paula. I know that my dad is watching over me and keeping me safe.”

Emani said that she had lost her brother to gun violence when she was seven. “I know that my mom has been dealing with it more than I do. She always brings up good things about him.

“I think we need justice when dealing with violence in our homes and in the streets,” she said. “We need to work harder to get gun violence to stop.” 

After an intermission where the energetic Dancers 4 Life performed, the room divided into two breakout sessions. 

Adults listened intently to Mattie Scott, president of the San Francisco chapter of Mothers in Charge, who had driven from the Bay area with Sheila Burton to attend the event. Scott said she continues to grapple with the unsolved homicide of her son.

“I was going to commit suicide,” she said. “I went around carrying a gun looking for the boy who killed my son. The suicide was planned. I took all the pills and drank alcohol. But my son came to me in a dream and said, ‘Mom, you can’t do this. We have work to do.’ 

“I asked him, ‘Who did this to you?’ “He didn’t say. He said, ‘You have to forgive him and move on.’”

After hearing her son’s otherworldly message, Scott rallied herself and decided to help other parents who had lost their children to gun violence.

“I didn’t want to see another mother on the couch crying who wanted to take her life,” Scott said.

“Our children are suffering in silence,” Scott continued. “We’re failing our community and our children. We can’t sit back and be quiet. We can’t rely on the government to take care of this problem because our people are hurting.” 

Pausing, she said, “It’s time. It’s about saving your children and your grandchildren. There is a demonic power after your children. I told him, ‘Hell no, you are not going to take our community and our children,” Scott said.

Grandmother Tamara Bingham cried out and wiped away tears as she talked about her grandson Larry McKay’s death. She admitted that five years later, she was still unable to forgive her grandson’s killer.

Bingham said that she had endured years of court hearings and the countless hearings had slowly taken its toll. 

“I want justice,” she cried.

Facilitators at the event quickly rushed over to Bingham to offer her words of solace and encouragement.

Henderson-Dix said that her involvement in Mothers in Charge has been a blessing. 

Pausing, she said, “These kids need us to care about them. Get involved. If you see a youth struggling, take five or 10 minutes to communicate with them. 

“I want us to be a community of love, not hate.” 

Ashley Wilkerson, who had lost her brother to gun violence 10 years ago, got everyone in the room to perform slow breathing exercises to help with stress. 

“You can protect and anchor yourself and by doing slow breathing,” she said. 

Teacher Gina Henry facilitated the youth breakout session where she distributed colorful T-shirts to the participants and instructed them to write positive affirmations.

“I’ve lost several students as well as my nephews to gun violence,” said Henry, who said she uses art to comfort students who are suffering from trauma.

Sixteen-year-old Joshua Blackwell, who attends Math and Science College Prep school dedicated his T-shirt project to his lifelong friend Kyle Chairez. Chairezwas fatally shot in a drive-by shooting when a spray of bullets wounded a crowd of students at his school.

“They put the whole school on lockdown,” Blackwell said. “At first, I didn’t believe that Kyle had been shot, but when they announced it at school, I went into shock, then denial.” 

Reflecting on gun violence, Blackwell paused. “Honestly, I don’t know if it can be stopped.” 

By Shirley Hawkins

Contributing Writer