I started my week on a North Philadelphia porch with a father whose 15-year-old daughter was shot and killed last month. We talked about her bedroom, the one the grieving father last entered shortly after her death before gently closing the door, unsure when he’d be able to walk in again. They had planned to paint the walls a shade of purple, her favorite color.
The next day I was on another North Philly porch, this time with a mother and grandmother of a 10-year-old boy happily seated between them. His mother was pregnant with him when his father was shot and killed, but the absence of a man he never met is ever-present. We talked about a lot over more than an hour, but one thing that lingered was the mother’s palpable relief that her son preferred staying indoors. Less reason to worry about his safety not guaranteed in any corner of the city.
That night, before I’d even gotten a chance to finish writing about the 15-year-old girl shot and killed in July, another 15-year-old girl was shot in the head while she played basketball with her brother outside a recreation center in the Tioga section of the city. Simone-Monea Rogers later died.
There was a lot of talk about “safe corridors” and after-school programs and activities to keep kids safe during the mayor’s virtual biweekly gun-violence briefing the following day.
But isn’t that what playing basketball at a city recreation center should be?
And yet, children in this city keep getting shot, and their worlds keep shrinking. Stay on the block. Stay right outside. Stay inside. On the mayor’s call Wednesday afternoon, police said that 137 children under the age of 18 have been shot so far this year. That’s a bullet ripping into a young person’s body every 40 hours.
Our response to the unrelenting gun violence isn’t working. For all the meetings and hearings and millions of dollars spent, that is the reality, proven day after day in numbers and grieving families and traumatized communities.
I’m not certain of what will. No one who is being honest is. What I am certain of, especially after a week like this one, is that we are buckling under the weight of loss and grief as we scramble to say or do something — anything — that might alleviate it.
I suppose that’s why I was so taken by news that Williesha Robinson-Bethel had recently opened a candy store in Roxborough to honor her 16-year-old son, William, who was shot and killed on Easter in 2018.
Lots of people impacted by gun violence start foundations and organizations to cope and to honor those they’ve lost. But there was something about this mom opening a candy store for her son that felt especially sweet. Especially after she shared that she too had not touched her son’s room since he was killed more than three years ago. It’s exactly as he left it, she told me, as she sat surrounded by lollipops, gummy bears, and licorice. “His toothbrush is still in the bathroom.”
Watching a little girl squeal over the choices when I visited WillBe’s Corner Candy Store, it was impossible not to appreciate this bit of joy that arose from so much sorrow. It made me think we should take some of the millions of dollars we’re throwing at antiviolence programs and help those impacted by violence to open neighborhood businesses that might not only memorialize those lost to gun violence but employ young people to try to keep them safe from it.
When I brought it up with Robinson-Bethel, she said she would love to expand and be able to hire a neighborhood kid or two. Now imagine others impacted by gun violence doing something similar, opening up small neighborhood businesses with the help of city grants or loans. It’s not as easy as that, of course. But it sure feels more hopeful than some of the same old programs we keep throwing money at while too many are left to just memorialize the dead.
Speaking of honoring victims of gun violence, in June I wrote about traveling to the National Building Museum in D.C. with two Philly mothers to visit the Gun Violence Memorial Project. It was a moving experience and exhibit where personal mementos of people killed by guns are displayed in four glass houses each built of 700 bricks for the number of people killed by guns in the United States every week.
After the column, many wanted to know how they could have their loved ones’ mementos included. I’ve got some news on that front. Next week the Gun Violence Memorial Project, in partnership with the Gifford Gun Violence Memorial, Price of Freedom, Mothers in Charge, and the Oronde McClain Foundation, will host collections in Philadelphia on Monday to Friday, Aug. 23-27.
· Aug. 23-27, from 3 to 7 p.m., at the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of PA, 4301 N. Broad St.
· Aug. 25, from noon to 7 p.m., at Independence National Historic Park, People’s Plaza.
· Aug. 26, from 3 to 7 p.m. at Destined 4 Greatness Inc. at Discovery Center, 3401 Reservoir Dr.
The objects collected will be put on display and added to the current exhibition in Washington in September.
There is something remarkably powerful about seeing seemingly ordinary objects in life take on extraordinary meaning in death. Yullio Robbins, one of the moms I traveled with, donated her son’s favorite brown tie. Cheryl Pedro gave a denim wallet her son made for her for Mother’s Day when he was in seventh grade.
As she took in all of the objects that July day, Robbins said something that feels increasingly significant these days:
“Look at all the hurt.”