Lola, with the Whoopi Goldberg grin, with the NBA-sized hoop earrings, Lola, who seems bashful but is brashly determined, Lola, heartsick over forgetting the names of Baltimore's gunned-down kids, Lola, who sits straight up in bed one night and hears the voice of God, Lola Willis, mother of four, who the very next day of her life, activates her God-given idea:
A children's memorial museum.
It will showcase murals painted by kids -- joyful, sprawling murals. It will be a celebration of life among the repetitive losses of Baltimore kids caught in the gunfire, caught dead in barbershop seats, dropped dead on street corners. Something more memorable and permanent than the same brief story in the newspaper, the same 30-second story on TV.
The memorial will feature a bulletin board where school and family pictures of slain city children can be pinned. Maybe a toy or two could be enshrined. Maybe we -- we, the community -- could build a peace center here, Willis says. And a resource center that offers bereavement counseling, meditation, teen mentors, a legal defense fund. Maybe even a museum shop with T-shirts silk-screened with the faces of slain children.
We must have a place where these children are memorialized, Willis thinks. It's too easy to forget their names, their faces, what they wore to school, what games they played, what friends they had, what they were doing in the moment before they were gunned down.
"Lot of people look at me like I'm crazy," Willis says. "But we all have children."
Here's what's crazy. One night God is talking to her, and a little more than a year later, Willis' idea is this tangible being. A seven-page proposal is high-jumping through City Hall hoops. The city of Baltimore has pledged $140,000 for the memorial museum, which the proposal pledges will be "a sacred place to gather the names and stories of children who have died on the streets of Baltimore."
The bulletin board could be displayed as soon as this summer. The resource center and peace community are being planned for 1999.
In 15 months, the "Children's Memorial Museum and Peace Center" has become a full-blown community mission involving Buddhists, Quakers, Lutherans, lay people, politicians, artists, retired school principals, "Homicide" actors, talk show hosts, a youth corps, and a spiritual dervish named Lola Willis.
"It can't be a one-person crusade," says the Rev. Edward Miller of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Sinclair Lane in East Baltimore -- the future site of the museum.
"Lola can't do this alone -- and she's not alone."
Taking a meeting
Stop the killing! Save our children! End the violence!
We've heard the slogans before. We've watched the TV news, maybe even attended a candlelight vigil. The one for a slain 5-year-old girl -- or was it that 12-year-old boy shot near his school? The names and circumstances bleed into each other -- precisely the point of the memorial museum.
Maybe the closest we've come to such violence is Friday night TV, when "Homicide: Life on the Streets" reconstructs Baltimore's underside. That subway episode this year? Too real. Couldn't watch it all. Sometimes it's too hard to stomach even staged violence.
But the March 20 episode showed something else: the TV detectives pinning a child's picture to a bulletin board memorializing Baltimore's slain children.
Off-camera, Lola Willis sat and watched the crew film and re-film that morsel of a scene. Her idea had been brought to TV life, thanks to Det. Tim Bayliss.
"How's it going?" says Kyle Secor, hugging Willis as they meet for lunch at Margaret's Cafe Open in Fells Point. For six years, Secor has played Bayliss. For six months, he has moonlighted as fund-raiser and spiritual comrade to the Children's Memorial Museum.
The Rev. Karen Brau at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, another museum supporter, introduced Willis to Secor at a meditation seminar last fall. (A Buddhist, Secor has also been involved in the Zen Community of Baltimore.) Willis pitched her museum idea. Secor signed on.
At Margaret's, Secor is here to eat a smart vegetarian lunch, to receive a museum progress report, and to present a gift to the cause. With "Homicide" filming finished for the season, Secor is on vacation big-time. He has a fresh buzz cut and old stubble on his young, expressive face.
It's become a face of this hometown project, bringing celebrity heat to the table. Under this corner table at Margaret's, Secor holds an envelope containing another $3,000 for the children's museum. He already wrote Willis a check for $1,000; he went with her to the candlelight vigil in February for Wayne Martin Rabb Jr., a 15-year-old Northern High School student who was gunned down.
Before presenting the latest donation, Secor gets up to speed. Willis and Claudia L. Brown, a former principal at Brehms Lane Elementary and writer of the museum project proposal, tell Secor about the city's pledge of $140,000, expected to be in hand by July.