From deep sadness, a legacy of hope

Terrell's gift: The shooting death of a young man leads to gallant striving by his family.

July 17, 2000

TERRELL COLLINS lived in Chicago's Henry Horner Homes, a notorious den of despair and violence very like the projects recently imploded in Baltimore: Murphy Homes, Lafayette Courts and Hollander Ridge.

Like too many young people in Baltimore, he died young, shot to death not far from his home.

At 14, Collins was something of a celebrity. A handsome child, a good student, a kid who seemed likely to live out the escape fantasies of many in Henry Horner. Instead, he became another of the project's victims.

But not just another victim. Terrell stars now as the silent hero of a family that might have been crushed by loss. In a film called "Legacy," we get a glimpse of the human spirit overcoming tragedy, failure and poverty with help from government and social service agencies.

This film issues an important challenge to several audiences: Cynical taxpayers are asked to acknowledge that good social programs can salvage families and develop human potential. Politicians and policy-makers are asked to take risks, to defend good programs against demagogues. The poor are urged to believe they can overcome.

Wide national distribution of the film has begun with financial support from the MacArthur Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. "Legacy" kits are being distributed to social service agencies anxious to use it as a teaching tool. HBO will air it some time next year.

Filmmaker Tod S. Lending spent five years with Terrell Collins' mother, grandmother, sister and brother as they struggled to achieve their dreams, including life outside the projects, which have been called "public aid penitentiaries."

"Legacy" shows plenty of failure, to be sure. But the people never quit. They prevail -- over drugs, over their own inadequacies, over tired and regulation-obsessed bureaucrats; and over the never-absent grieving.

Mr. Lending's work offers important perspective: It shows, for example, the difference between the outlook of the privileged and the poor. And not just in Chicago, of course.

"We know what to do when we're told no," says John M. Wesley, a communications official in Baltimore's housing department, who had his own collision with adversity: unemployment. "If something doesn't work today, we know it will tomorrow. And we have enough successes to give us confidence. Success in these things is not an event. It's a process."

That process becomes a central lesson of "Legacy."

Terrell's sister, Nikki, who narrates the film, says Terrell "left us with something good, something very powerful. He's shown us how precious life is. He's left us with a spirit to not just accept. ... He has motivated us to believe in ourselves."

Now 22, Nikki's clear personal strength builds when she meets mentors who recognize her spirit, help her get a job, applaud her graduation from high school, a first for her family, and guide her toward Northern Illinois University.

Recently, Henry Horner Homes was demolished. Baltimore's high-rise projects are falling, too, and none too soon. Now there's a legacy of another sort. With luck, new opportunity will come for those who move into better homes.

Moving closer to the center city, many of the Hollander Ridge tenants will find themselves closer to training, drug "elimination" programs, day-care services and job placement. Just moving closer to churches will link families to networks of food aid, transportation and mentoring.

Terrell's mother and grandmother had similar assistance in Chicago. Viewers of the film see them trying again and again to get on their feet -- and finally succeeding.

Family, though, is the primary support structure even when, as the film makes clear, the family is splintered and stressed. Baltimoreans can see all of this when "Legacy" is shown Sept. 13 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Nikki's brother, Jack, 15 when Terrell was killed and in his early 20s by the end of the film, has the roughest time.

He grieves in a framework of guilt: He was standing next to Terrell when the died. Like his mother, he's an addict. And he is already the father of two. He fears he is fulfilling the prediction that he will be a "nobody."

But when you see how many good things are achieved by his sister, his mother and grandmother, you have to think Jack's prediction need not be accurate -- that someday, he will connect with someone or some program that frees him from the prison of despair.

Nikki has the key.

Terrell's spirit, she says, "can't help us if we can't help ourselves."

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