THE PANICKED 911 call went out on a warm summer evening, and Shirley Boggs responded.
Boggs, mind you, is not a cop. She is a mother, grandmother and an advocate for parents who have lost children to violence. She started Mothers United Through Tragedy Inc., after her own son was slain 10 years ago.
So, when she heard that a young man had been riddled with bullets in Kensington on June 15 last year, she drove there, hoping to guide confused family members through the chaotic scene.
Boggs arrived on E Street near Tioga shortly after 11:30 p.m., and found Sharieff Lighty sprawled on the ground.
She didn't know Sharieff, 20, who had been shot at close range after he got out of his car to talk with someone he knew. She didn't know his mother, Diane Lighty, who was at home and asleep, unaware that her son was minutes away from becoming the city's 169th homicide victim of the year.
Boggs did what came naturally. "He was losing his life," she said, "so I stood over him and just prayed. I told him to hold on."
When the cops loaded Sharieff into the back of a police cruiser and sped off to Temple University Hospital, Boggs followed. At the hospital, she met Sharieff's mother for the first time.
"By the time I got there, they told me he was already gone," Diane Lighty said. "Shirley was there. She held my hand and went with me to identify the body. I was afraid to go in there, but she told me it would be OK."
Lighty was lost in a cloud of grief after she laid her son to rest. He died a few days before his 21st birthday, and his future had seemed promising.
Sharieff was studying to become an auto mechanic, and he had a stable life in Bucks County, where he lived with his girlfriend and their young daughter.
He was killed in the same Kensington neighborhood where several of his aunts lived. Lighty believes that her son was on his way to visit her sisters, but so far, witnesses have refused to come forward. The case remains unsolved.
Boggs reached out and invited Lighty to join Mothers United. She was, after all, now part of a small but ever-growing community of parents who understand on a deeply personal level the impact of the city's ever-escalating violence crisis.
"I went to the meetings and started meeting the same people I read about in the paper," Lighty said. "We're all going through the same thing. They understand that sometimes you just need somebody to hold you. It's OK if you need to cry."
The homicide tally continued to spike throughout last summer, often the result of encounters between careless and heavily armed young men.
Monique Reid remembered hearing that several young men in her South Philly neighborhood had been shot to death, but she never had reason to believe that violence would touch her family.
Her world changed forever on June 19, when her daughter, Salina Brown, 22, was slain by an ex-boyfriend. Brown was the 173rd homicide victim of the year.
Brown and her daughter had just moved in with Reid, following her split from Craig Brown, 37, the man who confessed to killing her.
A naturally bubbly person with an infectious smile, Salina was planning on using health skills she gained in the Army several years earlier to help her become a nurse.
She was also excitedly planning a future for her daughter, who is now 2, including dance and piano classes.
"She was bitten by the parent bug," Reid said. "She loved her daughter to no end and wanted to move her somewhere quieter."
Before she could move forward with her new life, Brown had to trek back to Southwest Philly, to her ex-boyfriend's house, to pick up clothes and her baby's belongings, including the tiny hat her daughter wore in the hospital after being born.
Reid said Salina declined to be driven there.
"I thought I should drive her and the baby out there, that we could go shopping afterwards, but she told me she wouldn't be long. The last thing she said to me was, 'Mom, everything will be all right.' "
But hours drifted by with no word from Salina. Finally, Reid heard from Craig Brown, who said Salina had stormed off in a huff after another woman showed up at his house.
He met Reid and handed over Salina's daughter.
"He was rambling, just talking and talking," Reid recalled. "The baby was screaming, and I just looked at him and could tell something was not right."
Brown mentioned an address - a house on Gould Street near Woodland Avenue - and Reid raced there. She found the street clogged with ambulances and police cars.
The next day, homicide detectives delivered the horrible news: Salina had been strangled and stabbed to death, left with a bag over her head in the basement of Brown's new girlfriend's house.
"The thing is, we know that our children are older, but when someone tells you that they are no longer here . . . at that moment, I could no longer see her as a woman. I could only see her as my baby," Reid said between sobs.
The police eventually captured Brown, who confessed to Salina's slaying. He was charged with murder, but died last August in prison. The case has been closed.
"Our family will never be whole again," Reid said. "When we show my granddaughter pictures of Salina and say, 'That's your mama,' she just gets real quiet and puts her head down. She puts the pictures away."
On Saturday, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children gathered at the bottom of the Art Museum steps for Mothers United's annual "Footprints of Life" ceremony.
Boggs, working seemingly non-stop in the past week, gathered shoes from the families of last year's 406 murder victims.
The shoes - ranging from tiny "Dora the Explorer" sandals to leather high heels and well-worn work boots - filled 11 steps.
"I've been crying for two days preparing for this," Lighty said, pointing out Sharieff's tan-and-green boots on the fourth step. "It's very touching, but very sad. When does this stop?"
Parents took turns reading every murder victim's name aloud as a bell was solemnly rung.
The stunning visual representation stopped tourists and other passers-by in their tracks.
"It's a reminder that we're all connected, and that these were
real people, not just a number," said mayoral candidate Michael Nutter, who showed up with no fanfare as a longtime supporter of Boggs'.
Dan Deck, 20, a Millersville University student who was visiting the museum, said: "It's pretty sad. We didn't get it at first, but when you see that many shoes, it's pretty powerful."
Prayers, songs and tributes filled the three-hour ceremony.
At one point, the families gathered in a line above the shoe memorial and began singing "We Shall Overcome" in almost perfect harmony. The words filled the air, as a light breeze whipped through the flags overhead:
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day
Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day.
The ceremony ended when the family members, clutching an array of red, purple and white balloons - red for the blood shed, purple for their pain and suffering, and white for the hope of tomorrow - joined together in a circle.
As if on cue, the sun came out and the balloon clusters were released.
"They're our babies, y'all," Boggs said, as the balloons floated heavenward and slowly faded from sight.
"They're saying, 'We're OK, Mom, we're OK, Dad. We've been set free,' " she added.
"I wanted to hold onto the balloon," Reid said afterward, "but I got to see my daughter go peacefully, like I would have hoped she did." *