If you didn’t know what brought everyone to a community center in South Philadelphia on a recent Sunday, you would have thought it was just another Christmas celebration.
‘Tis the season and all that.
And in a way it was. A festive bash full of music and food and presents, and an all-in Santa Claus amusing parents and children alike inside a room brimming with sugar-induced adrenaline.
Except that the children inside a decked-out room at the Dixon House — and there were about 100 of them — had all lost someone to gun violence. Most, their fathers.
And when that became apparent, when you looked past the tinsel and seasonal cheer and let that sink in, well, it was enough to take Jaleen Curtis’ breath away — even if she was there with her own two children, left without a father when Felix Smith, 27, was gunned down in January while sitting inside a car.
“When I got here, my mind was blown because of all the people here who are impacted by this,” said Curtis. “It’s insane. Sometimes I feel so alone, but in reality, it’s happening all over. This is really something that’s killing our community.”
There, by her feet, was her 3-year-old, Skylah-Kree Smith, smiling ear-to-ear near a new bike while her aunt held her sister, Suraya, just 2 days old when her father died. Across the room were sisters Khalia and Malia Allford, each holding a small pile of gifts, their thoughts for the moment on something other than the absence of their father, gunned down in 2018. And huddled together at one of the tables were four of the Hamilton siblings, ages 17 to 12, bonded by blood but brought even closer after their father was shot and killed by one of his lifelong friends last year.
Their dad, Alan Gray, always loved a good party. But celebrations, especially during the holidays, are different now. Everything is different now, the siblings told me.
“Sometimes it hits you, even when you try not to think about it,” said Sakiyah Gray, 16. She and her older sister can’t help but think about all the things their father won’t see, including witnessing them graduate, something he looked forward to.
“He knew we were good in school,” said Aniyah Hamilton-Gray. “He liked that.”
The party was hosted by a group of women who know this pain all too well. For two years, Moms Bonded By Grief has gathered monthly inside the community center to offer one another support, its numbers growing alongside the number of homicides in the city. More than 338 people have been shot and killed in Philadelphia so far this year. After each of those losses, countless children and loved ones are left behind to grieve and mourn.
“Every day is hard,” said Terrez McCleary, cofounder of the group. “The holidays are extremely hard.” McCleary’s daughter, Tamara Johnson, was killed in 2009. Johnson’s daughter, just 2 when she died, is now being raised by grandparents McCleary and her husband.
I happened to be at their monthly meeting in October when they were still planning for the day. Above all, they wanted to offer a respite to children so burdened. They wanted to be sure every child who came left with a present. They needn’t have worried. A Christmas village of supporters stepped up.
Parkway Center City Middle College high schoolers put on a basketball tournament to raise funds for presents. Another night I watched two Temple ER doctors, Megan Healy and Adria Simon, show up like a couple of elves just as the community center was about to close bearing armfuls of gifts donated by doctors and nurses and friends and family.
“We see how profoundly impacted everyone is by the violence, but it can feel sometimes like we aren’t making a dent,” Simon said. “We’re just looking for any opportunity to show up and say, ‘We care so much.’ We wish we could save everyone, and if we can’t, what else can we do for our community?”
Back at the party, my thoughts turned to Christmas wishes, a few that actually seemed to be coming true in that very room:
A bike for one lucky little girl, a handheld video game for a boy, a few hours, however fleeting, of cheer.
But then there’s that one unanswered wish so many of us have: that the next generation of children never know what it’s like to be the collateral victims of gun violence.