(MCT) — CHICAGO — Their children became symbols of Chicago’s street violence.
But the shootings didn’t stop.
Annette Nance-Holt, whose son Blair was killed in 2007, calls this group of parents who have lost children to violence “the unfortunate club.”
Last week, Nathaniel Pendleton and Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton joined that group when their 15-year-old daughter, Hadiya Pendleton, was shot to death on the South Side.
Just a few days earlier, Hadiya had performed as a band majorette during inaugural festivities for President Barack Obama near Washington. Then on Tuesday, about a mile from Obama’s home in Chicago’s Kenwood neighborhood, she was shot in the back as she took shelter from the rain after school.
Hadiya’s assailant remains at large, despite a $40,000 reward. Her funeral is Saturday.
The killing has rallied voices nationwide demanding an end to the violence. But Nance-Holt and other activists fear that despite the outrage, Chicago will come no closer to figuring out how to stop the violence.
After 506 homicides last year, January opened the new year with 42 more. Seven of those 42 victims were age 17 and under.
Although the killings of children capture the public’s heart, Nance-Holt and other close relatives know the spotlight eventually moves on — then they’re left to find their way, often in what feels like the dark.
After her son Blair was killed, it took Annette Nance-Holt a year just to move the pile of folded clothes the boy had left stacked on the dryer in their home.
It’s been six years since the popular 16-year-old was killed, and his mother still hasn’t cleaned out his room. Even with therapy and support, Nance-Holt said there is an emptiness that lingers.
“The public only sees one part. After you bury your child, the people are gone,” she said. “As parents, we have hopes and dreams for our children and their future. Then it’s all snatched away. You get a call your child is dead. No one is prepared for that.”
Blair was riding a CTA bus home from Julian High School on the South Side when someone opened fire. The teenager, who was remembered as friendly and warm, tried to block a friend from being shot and was struck himself. As paramedics were trying to save him, Blair asked them to tell his parents he loved them. Then he died.
Now his parents, Chicago Police Department veteran Cmdr. Ronald Holt and Nance-Holt, work vigorously to keep their son’s story alive. Nance-Holt attends rallies and lobbies elected officials. She gives speeches at local high schools. She reaches out to the parents of other slain children.
“It’s not just Blair. There are tons of kids I’m fighting for,” she said. “I’m broken emotionally, but I have to fight. There was no way I would let a thug or gangbanger kill my child and me be quiet.”
The year that her son, Terrell Bosley, was killed, Pamela Montgomery-Bosley tried to commit suicide twice, she said.
She and her husband had done all they could to raise their children in a strict, Christian home, she said. So when Terrell, 18, was gunned down in a church parking lot in 2006 as he helped a friend unload drums from a car, the Roseland woman was beyond devastated.
“I almost lost my mind,” she said. “I was upset with God. I couldn’t believe God would allow him to be taken.”
But even as she grieved, Montgomery-Bosley said she channeled her pain into activism. She became determined to catch Terrell’s killer and even offered a cash reward.
“Because Terrell was murdered on church grounds, he became a symbol,” she said. “I relate to parents who are facing this ‘code of silence.’ I think because my case had so much media attention, police rushed; they wanted to catch somebody, but they didn’t have enough evidence.”
A suspect was charged with Terrell’s murder but acquitted.
Terrell’s murder is still unsolved, his mother said.
When Montgomery-Bosley learned about Hadiya’s shooting death, she went to the Kenwood neighborhood the next day. She found Hadiya’s mother and wrapped her arms around her in an embrace.
“Right now, she’s in shock. She doesn’t even know what’s going on. She won’t remember me,” Montgomery-Bosley said. “This devastates a family. When the lights go off, your whole family is hurting. How can we expect them to live now?”
Tommy Vanden Berk
The art of negotiation is the hallmark of the parent-teen relationship. And in April 1992, when Tom Vanden Berk and his 15-year-old son, Tommy, went back and forth about whether he could attend a party, the father believed he had handled the discussion well.
“He was doing some disc jockeying, and after we talked about it, I decided he could go, so I took him and his buddies,” said Vanden Berk, the CEO of UCAN, a social service agency in Chicago.
Vanden Berk accompanied the young men inside the house in Rogers Park and introduced himself to some of the other teens. Everything seemed fine. He then gave his son a curfew of 11:30 p.m. and left.
“But he called me later and said, ‘They didn’t let me start my music. Could you let me stay until 1 o’clock?’ I said, ‘No way.’ And we negotiated and agreed on 12:30,” Vanden Berk said. “By the time I got there … ambulances and police cars (were) everywhere.”
He learned that a group of gang members had shown up and started shooting. Tommy was caught in the crossfire as he tried to leave the party through a back door. He was shot in the heart and died instantly.
“April 25, 1992, was a game changer,” Vanden Berk said, “and I’ve been involved in the gun violence prevention movement ever since.”
He said that in 2011, when Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy equated lax federal gun laws to racism, he understood what McCarthy meant.
“Tommy was this wonderful kid, a biracial kid, who was growing up with a mixed identity and friends of different races,” said Vanden Berk, who is white and whose son was African-American and white. “I couldn’t help thinking that if he’d been hanging out with his white friends in a safer neighborhood that night, he wouldn’t have died.
“But we tend not to really look at what’s going on in violent neighborhoods — until it’s too late.”
Some parents who lose children to gun violence go into a shell. But Vanden Berk said he felt compelled to go to work.
“It’s a constant struggle to go forward and cope with this,” he said. “People say, ‘You’re a survivor.’ But it’s a hell of a journey, surviving.”
For weeks, people couldn’t stop talking about the little girl who was struck and killed by a stray bullet at her own birthday party.
Ten-year-old Siretha White quickly became a symbol of escalating violence in Englewood. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to help, said her mother’s sister, Deanna Woods, who had hosted the surprise party at her home in 2006 and thought of the child nicknamed “Nugget” as her own.
Strangers donated money. The community held marches to protest gang violence. Police officers befriended Woods, even stepping in to persuade her to “let go” and move out of the bullet-torn house. Social workers helped get her and her children into a rent-subsidized apartment in Kenwood.
Then almost as suddenly as the attention came, it went away. And the family was left to grieve alone.
“There’s a lot of lights, camera, action at first. Everybody is being supportive,” said White, who lost her rent subsidy and moved back to Englewood. “But when the cameras go away, it’s hard to find anyone who will help.”
Siretha’s death was just the beginning of a series of grueling emotional turns for the family.
On the day of the funeral, Woods’ brother, who had held the family together, suffered a heart attack and died.
“We were putting Nugget in the ground when they told us to get to the hospital,” said Woods, 42. “I was no good after that for a while.”
The family learned that the man in the passing white Cadillac who shattered the front window of the house with bullets as 30 young children were inside dancing was no stranger. Moses Phillips, who later was sentenced to 75 years in prison, is the godson of Siretha’s mother, according to Woods. He had been aiming at a group of men standing outside.
“It caused lots of tension in the family. I had big problems with him,” she said. “I went to court one time and tore the place up. They wouldn’t let me come back.”
Woods founded The Golden Nugget Girls Leadership Program, named for her niece and run through a community organization, Teamwork Englewood.
“It’s hard to let go,” Woods said. “I do this in Siretha’s memory.”
The last words 16-year-old Jeremiah Sterling spoke as he lay dying in an alley in West Pullman was a message to his mother. “I want you to tell my mom that I love her,” he whispered to a friend.
LaWanda Sterling did all she could to protect her youngest son from Chicago’s violent streets, even sending him away to Denver to live with an older brother. But while Jeremiah was home on a summer visit in 2010, a 17-year-old assailant shot him near the Sterlings’ home, authorities said.
Every time Sterling hears of another child slain, it reopens a wound that has never fully healed. In times like this, not even cloaking herself in the blanket from her son’s bed can comfort her.
Jeremiah’s friends gave her a stuffed animal about 3 feet tall. She dressed it in his favorite shirt, the one he wore when his dance troupe performed in the Bud Billiken Parade. The stuffed animal makes her feel close to Jeremiah, and sometimes she talks to it as if it were her son.
“Parents who have lost a child to violence have a universal look of pain,” said Sterling, 50. “You can see it in our eyes.”
This past November, Sterling finally got the strength to redo her son’s room. She painted it pink and purple, colors that she finds soothing. She hung pictures of him on every wall, 10 of them so far.
Sometimes she goes there and sits. When his friends came over on his birthday just before Christmas, she allowed them in. For nearly an hour, the young people reminisced about the good times growing up with Jeremiah. Sterling, though, only thinks about what could have been.
“He used to tell me all the time, ‘Mama, I’m gonna make it and I’m going to buy you a house,’ ” she said. “He’s always with me. He watches over my house. He always protects me.”
Denise Reed’s daughter Starkesia was just 14 when she was killed on a March morning in 2006. A bullet fired from an assault rifle missed its target but struck Starkesia, who was in her Englewood home getting ready for school.
“I want people to know that all of these kids, whether you hear about them or not, they are really human beings and families are being destroyed,” said Reed, one of the founders of Purpose Over Pain, an organization of parents who have lost children to violence.
“The media sometimes report these stories as numbers from the weekend death count, but even my mother who lives in Mississippi heard about Hadiya.”
Reed said her world was turned upside down after her daughter’s death, and she had to learn how to move forward. She and her family moved away from Englewood, but she returns to help motivate students to do well in school. And she offers support to parents of children slain in the area.
She also draws comfort from several of Starkesia’s belongings, even though they sometimes evoke bittersweet memories.
“She was a member of the ROTC at school, and I still have her uniform,” Reed said. “I was given her high school diploma, even though she never had the opportunity to graduate.”
Reed said she has several letters from colleges inviting her daughter to visit their campuses.
“All kinds of dreams were cut short in 2006,” Reed said. “We had gone shopping for a cotillion dress that she never got to wear.
“And then there are her white gym shoes. She’d just bought them because she had received all A’s on her report card. She was killed in those brand-new shoes.”