Mothers who lost children to gun violence band together for support this Mother’s Day

It was a warm early Saturday in June 2014 and Michelle Pearson was on her way home from a rare night out when she saw two young men she knew from grade school who flagged her down and asked her for a lift to their apartment.

They drove to the 4600 block of South Ellis Avenue, near the border of the North Kenwood and the Bronzeville neighborhoods, where Pearson parked the car. After the group got out and began to head home, a man jumped out of a vehicle and opened fire.

Pearson, a 20-year-old single mother who worked at White Castle and lived a quiet life at home with her mom and 4-year-old son, was shot in the head, arm and buttocks, injuries that eventually killed her. She was pronounced dead on March 3, 2015, just weeks before her son’s 5th birthday.

“It was the ending of a 13-day work stint for my daughter and she asked me if she could go out,” her mother Rochetta Tyler tearfully recounted to the Tribune this week. “I’ve been crying for eight years. She’s supposed to be raising her son, not me. She missed his first day of school, everything.”

Tyler is among the countless mothers in Chicago who will wake up on Mother’s Day this Sunday without the children they have lost to gun violence. For some mothers, their loss is their first in the bloodshed. For others, it is a pain already too familiar. But no matter where they fall on the grim spectrum, they all share the uniquely connected grief of losing a child to gun violence.

This Mother’s Day, the mothers will meet to share their personal stories of anxiety, grief and heartbreak at the third annual Heal Your Heart Foundation’s Mother’s Day brunch in Bronzeville. Sponsors of the brunch, to be held at the Tolton Heritage Center at St. Elizabeth’s Hall, 44 E. 41st St., are the Chicago Survivors organization, the Chicago chapter of the National Black MBA Association, Bridge the Gap and Walmart.

This year, family members of gun violence victims also will be attending, said organizer Octavia Mitchell, founder of Heal Your Heart, an organization she created to support grieving mothers after she lost her son in a police-related shooting in 2010.

Some mothers of people slain by gun violence will speak of dealing with the anxiety of continuing to reside in the same neighborhoods where their loved one was killed, Mitchell said. Others will talk about the lack of communication from law enforcement and the difficulties of raising children orphaned by some victims.

“There is no expiration on the grief of losing a child, it never ends,” Mitchell said. “I don’t wish this on anyone.”

And this year, they’ll also talk about turning their grief into political action. For grieving parents, it’s difficult to go back to work while dealing with the loss, Mitchell said, so the mothers are joining forces with state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner to draft legislation that would allow parents who have suffered the death of a child by gun violence to apply for short-term disability while they grieve.

With the legislative session scheduled to end next week, it’s unclear how far the proposal will go. But Buckner, a Chicago Democrat, said he is going to try.

“It’s important so I am committed to getting it done,” Buckner told the Tribune.

Tyler said she and her other daughter are raising her grandson, Antonio Poore, now 13. Over the years, she’s had to coax him from hiding under the bed when he hears gunshots and loud noises. He doesn’t watch TV shows that include gun violence. She’s put him in a dance group to turn his attention elsewhere.

But she said her love will never measure up to what he lost that June night.

“He hasn’t got any justice in his mother being taken away from us,” she said. “He deserves a father figure and a mother. I won’t stop until my grandson gets justice.”

‘Don’t tell me he was at the wrong place at the wrong time’

Khalil Denny, 19, was a softball player who regularly played with friends near his home on the Low End, a district comprising lower number streets on the South Side. But the day of Sept. 13, 2022, the group went to Washington Park, which starts in the 5100 block of King Drive.

There, a fight that started in a parking lot spilled into the park and turned deadly. Denny, a shoe salesperson who loved shoes and shopping, and was excited about an upcoming birthday, was killed.

“People tell me it was God’s will that my son was killed, and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” his mother, Lanette Ford, told the Tribune this week. “Don’t tell me he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. My son was at the right place at the right time. He was playing softball on a beautiful sunny day in Washington Park when he was killed.”

After he was struck, Ford remembered receiving calls with people shouting, “Pootie’s shot, Pootie’s shot.”

She could not muster up the strength to rush to UChicago Medicine to see another child fighting for his life. In 2014, her first son, Vincent Denny, 16, was killed in a high-speed chase when a car crashed into a tree in Ellis Park near 39th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue and he was thrown out a windshield. He lived two weeks before he was pronounced dead on Sept 21.

So instead she waited for the dreaded news, and remembered how he’d gotten a new bottle of cologne and was hugging everyone to show off its smell.

Since the death of her second son, Ford has suffered from anxiety attacks and high-blood pressure. The Chicago Survivors organization helped pay for Denny’s funeral arrangements, but she is left trying to figure out what happened the day of his slaying.

“Nobody told me what happened, nobody will even talk to me about that day,” she said. “I am here all by myself. The city of Chicago has done nothing.”

Even though the shooting happened in a public park, there were no cameras, Ford said. She has five remaining children ages 34, 33, 32, 19 and 9, and has been fighting with city housing officials to be relocated from her subsidized apartment in North Kenwood ever since, she said.

“I never knew what that it meant until my son was killed”

Sherry Campbell-Nolen, who holds a degree of applied science in mental health and addictions studies and is a member of Phi Theta Kappa honor society, moved her three sons from Chicago to Mississippi, thinking it would be a safer place to raise her sons.

For eight years, she worked with Jackson State University’s Community Health Program. She also worked on re-entry programs, supporting individuals reintegrating into society after incarceration, both in Chicago and Mississippi.

Then on July 7, 2021, her son, Akaeem Nolen, 28, was fatally shot, blocks away from Jackson State University, she said.

“I never knew what it meant until my son was killed,” Nolen said, noting her work was in therapy in the Black and brown communities leading up to the day Akaeem was slain.

Nolen said she depended on her community as she raised her sons, believing her village would stand guard in her absence. Now she realizes her community is unfairly placing all the burden on police.

“We put the burden on a group of people who don’t deserve it,” Nolen said. “I educated myself to know the crime lab and the detectives share in the responsibility of solving these crimes.”

Since her son’s death, Nolen founded and is the director of Saving Ourselves (SOS), an organization dedicated to providing support to mothers who have lost loved ones to gun violence across the United States. Through SOS, Nolen offers solace, understanding and resources to help these mothers navigate the traumatic aftermath of such devastating loss.

“As long as I’m alive his spirit will always live in me. He is the fabric of who I am,” Nolen said. “Have empathy for us. When someone murders a loved one, it’s different, no one should be murdered.”

Heal your heart

In Chicago, Mitchell has been working since her son was killed in a police-involved shooting in 2010. Though she is still fighting the city of Chicago after lost DNA evidence was found, she has concentrated her efforts on supporting mothers whose children have fallen victim to Chicago gun violence.

Her Heal Your Heart Foundation has worked to secure grants aimed at curbing gun violence in Chicago. While Mitchell and the mothers support advocates working to curb the city’s wave of gun crimes, she said more needs to be done for the family members left behind.

Those directly affected by the violence could possibly push for the most change, she said.

“It’s OK for good people to apply for grants with ideas, but why give grants only to people with good ideas instead of people who have been impacted by this violence,” Mitchell said. “It’s a difference between good ideas and reality. We all want to stop the violence, but for someone who’s experienced a child not coming home, they are more eager to stop the violence.”

dawilliams@chicagotribune.com