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Art project targets deadly gun violence awareness in Camden schools: ‘I saved a seat for you’

Art students at Camden's Charles Brimm Medical Arts High school are painting empty desks as a memorial for students lost to gun violence. They hope the "No more empty desks" project will be a model for other schools.

Senior Nytasia Braxton's desk she painted for the “No More Empty Desks” campaign at the Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden.
Senior Nytasia Braxton's desk she painted for the “No More Empty Desks” campaign at the Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

When gun violence struck her family for a second time, two mass shootings a half-century apart, Robin Cogan felt compelled to do something to send a message to stop the carnage.

A Camden school nurse, Cogan had an idea to create a grassroots arts campaign — "No More Empty Desks” — at Charles Brimm Medical Arts High School that she hopes will catch on around the country to drive home the message. The desks and the messages painted by students symbolize the countless young lives lost and the hopes of an outspoken generation trying to change the grim statistics.

So far, two desks have been completed — one painted by Christian Moreno, a senior, with a simple but haunting message, “I saved a seat for you,” and another by Nytasia Braxton that has a map and a compass to show violence can happen anywhere.

“We have to do something,” said Cogan, a school nurse for 18 years. “This is a public-health crisis.”

Cogan said she turned to students in Camden, once labeled the most dangerous city in the country, to express themselves through art. She is lifting her voice, too.

Cogan, 58, of Cherry Hill, is the daughter of Charles Cohen, who hid in a closet to escape Howard Unruh’s “Walk of Death” in Camden’s Cramer Hill neighborhood on Sept. 6, 1949. Unruh spree became the first mass shooting in modern times. Unruh, a paranoid schizophrenic, killed 13 people in a matter of minutes.

Cohen, 6 years old at the time, survived, but his parents and a grandmother were killed. Nearly 70 years later, his granddaughter Carly Novell survived last February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., by hiding in a closet. When the shooting stopped, 17 were dead and 17 others injured.

“Almost 70 years later my niece is hiding in a closet in Parkland. Can you imagine?” said Cogan. “The only thing I could think of was my dad.”

More than 20,000 children have died as a result of gun violence in the last 20 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those staggering statistics hit home in Camden, where Javonne Davis, a freshman at Camden High, was shot dead in November. There were 22 homicides in the city in 2018.

Cogan wanted to do something, so last summer she recruited her friend Lisa Wallenburg, an art teacher at Brimm, to help launch “No More Empty Desks.” They hope the pilot project will become a model for other Camden schools and around the country.

Wallenburg found several broken desks in the school’s basement and asked Moreno and Braxton, 17, also a senior, to turn them into artwork. The students spent several months, mostly during free periods, refurbishing the desks, sanding the tops and applying acrylic.

“We just decided there shouldn’t be any more children lost to gun violence or mass shootings,” Wallenburg said. “There shouldn’t be any more empty desks.”

Moreno, 18, an aspiring veterinarian or personal trainer, painted the top of a desk white with three arms in different shades of brown stretching across the top. Two arms are linked, holding hands; the third is holding a red rose with petals falling.

“I didn’t want to stick to one race,” Moreno said. He intertwined the hands to show “everyone coming together.”

Moreno said he has not lost anyone personally to violence, but friends have. He penned the phrase “I saved a seat for you” in blue letters on the back of the seat to express the pain of youngsters in Camden and elsewhere who have lost classmates, he said.

“It’s sad. School is supposed to be a safe place,” said Moreno. “You come to school to learn. You don’t think you’re going to die.”

Braxton took a global approach on her desk. She painted a world map with flags to show that violence “could happen anywhere" and added a beautifully designed compass with the “no more empty desks” slogan.

“You don’t know it’s coming,” said Braxton, who is considering a career as a police officer or athletic trainer. “I hope people will realize how lucky they are and how survivors feel. I hope the people responsible will think before they do this.”

>>READ MORE: Inside the mind of the Philadelphia area’s worst mass killer

One of the desks, still under construction, will be placed at Camden High in memory of Davis, 15. It bears his name with praying hands holding rosary beads.

Davis, a freshman, was fatally shot while walking home from school. A classmate, Kidron Roberts, 15, was charged with his slaying. No motive has been disclosed.

A Camden High teacher requested the desk for Davis, an ambitious teenager who had overcome obstacles and had dreams of attending college and playing professional football. He played with the Staley Park Panthers, a community football program, and was known for his speed and strength as a lineman.

Cogan said she came up with the #Nomoreemptydesks project after a suggestion from a school nurse in Tennessee who read about her story on Twitter. It is modeled after a domestic-violence program at Rutgers-Camden that turns the campus purple in October to bring awareness.

“Why not have the students use their voice?" said Cogan, the mother of adult twin daughters and an adjunct Rutgers professor. “This impacts them. It’s a community issue everywhere, not just Camden."

Cogan has started a blog, the Relentless School Nurse, and plans to work with Wallenburg to develop a curriculum to share with art teachers and school nurses. They also plan to show the desks at other schools in Camden as a traveling exhibit to encourage other students to paint desks for their schools.

The project has been a transformation for Cogan, who has spoken out about gun violence as a public health advocate. As a child, she rarely heard her father talk about the Unruh shooting until the 1980s, when charges against Unruh were dropped. Cohen died Sept. 4, 2009, and was buried two days later on the 60th anniversary of the massacre. Unruh died six weeks later at age 88.

“He always wanted to focus on the survivors and not the killer,” Cogan said of her father. She does, too.