Families touched by murder unite to ease the pain

December 20, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

This is one in a series of occasional features highlighting people and organizations in the Baltimore area that exemplify the spirit of The Sun's annual Spirit of Sharing Holiday Campaign.

To most people, gazing out the window onto a white Christmas can bring a sense of profound comfort. Eleven years ago, though, as a first snow fell on Baltimore just before the holidays, Jessie Snead felt something very different.

Her son, Terrance Thompson, 26, had been killed in a Park Heights shooting only three months before, and the season was doing nothing to assuage her grief.

"All I could think of," she recalls, "was whether he was warm enough out there" in his cemetery plot. "Isn't that a strange way to think?"

Irrational, perhaps, but as a recent get-together of Baltimore residents suggested, not strange at all for someone so closely touched by homicide. Snead was one of more than 70 who came together at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse one night for an "Evening of Joy, Peace, Laughter and Sharing" at which the family members of murder victims shared memories of loved ones, heard each other's stories and hung ornaments on a "Tree of Angels," all in an effort to fortify themselves for a time of year that never ceases to be emotionally draining.

"It doesn't matter if [a murder] happened 10 years ago or just last month," said Robin Singletary Haskins, an adviser to Saviors Against Violence Everywhere, or SAVE, the nonprofit organization that organized the event. "Everyone you know is enjoying the company of their loved ones. You have one who's never coming back. This time of year is especially hard."

People who have lost a loved one to homicide typically find themselves facing an array of unexpected challenges, says Haskins, from the quandary of navigating an often indifferent criminal justice system to the problem of fending off depression, anger and despair.

A handful of survivors, including Snead, started SAVE 11 years ago. Each had worked with the Family Bereavement Center, a division of the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office that helps the families of murder victims, and the group came together to offer an array of new services. SAVE has helped individuals deal with crisis management; appeared at churches, schools and prisons; and worked with local and national politicians on enhancing victims' rights.

But none of its services has been more important, according to Haskins, than the annual Christmas program.

"People can come together here, talk and find support from others who have been there," she said as dozens prepared to hang angels, stars and Santas on a fir tree in a corner of the Victim Witness Waiting Room at the Mitchell courthouse. "You'd rather people met for another reason, but once they do, this evening tends to be enjoyable and very, very warm."

In Baltimore, where murder is a common enough occurrence that it can be tempting to think of victims in statistical terms, remembering those victims as "individuals we loved, as treasures of the community," is a first step in turning "despair into positivity," said one guest speaker, Patricia C. Jessamy, Baltimore City state's attorney, who has worked with SAVE since its founding.

And on the eve of the holidays, a string of volunteers and survivors did just that:

Georgia Moore, a preschool teacher whose son, Gerald Higgs, was murdered in 1993, remembered his cheerful outlook and an opposition to violence so strong that he declined, even in his job as a bank security guard, to carry a gun.

Andre Noel, 45, who lost two of his four sons to street violence in the past two years, recalled how Arnie and Tay loved to sit together at Christmas and remember holidays from their childhoods.

"You raise them with love," he said, "but there are so many guns out in the streets, and at a certain age, peer pressure gets overwhelming." He and his wife, Debbie, "will try to make this Christmas" - their first without Tay - "as painless as possible."

Christina Auston, 23, lost the father of her son, Michael Jones, in a shooting just three months ago. He'd brought a sack of presents home to their son, Tayqwone Hall, now 6, just last year, but this Christmas will seem tragically empty. "I'm glad I heard about this meeting," she said, "or I might feel like I was facing this Christmas alone."

Hard as that will be, the encouragement of women like SAVE member Veda Allen helps. The grandmother of 15, whose son, Everett Farmer, was murdered in 1992, said every survivor has unique strategies. One of hers was to pray for the perpetrator.

Christmas morning, which was brutally painful for years, is now "fantastically easier," she says, in part because she developed a holiday ritual: creating made-to-order breakfasts for every grandchild.

"It's possible, with God's help, to channel all this in a positive direction," she said with a smile.

As the evening progressed, from the round of speeches through the sharing of homemade food, the decoration of the tree and the swapping of tales, Jessie Snead and a roomful of victims came to seem more like survivors, feeling what she hoped her son might feel 11 years ago, that first, snowy Christmas without him.

For more information about Saviors Against Violence Everywhere, or to make a donation, call 410-396-1897.

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