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At West Baltimore memory garden, gun violence survivors seek neighborhood space to heal

At 17, Donniya Burgess already has lost a sister, several friends and a boyfriend to gun violence. Her grief, and the trauma that compounds it, make it difficult for her to leave the house, she said.

“I’m not going to say something bad might happen to me, but I think sometimes, if I go out the door, something might happen to me,” she said. “It’s like, I see other people smile, but then I think about the ones who used to smile.”

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Burgess, of West Baltimore, is one of many city mourners who may not have been stricken by bullets themselves but still feel their deep wounds. Since Jan. 1, at least 84 people have been killed, according to Baltimore police data. Last year, that number reached 335.

On Saturday, a group of survivors — children, young adults, parents and grandparents, and others affected by gun deaths — honored their loved ones with the creation of a memory garden in West Baltimore’s Harlem Park. They planted flowers, said prayers and laid personalized memorial stones adorned with the names and special descriptors of those whose lives were tragically cut short.

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Lisa Molock, the CEO of Let’s Thrive Baltimore, the group responsible for the Memory Creation Garden on Lafayette Avenue, said the space represents a haven that she hopes will evolve in a community gathering spot. She pledged to build more throughout the city.

”Sometimes we don’t want to go to the cemetery or we might can’t get to the cemetery,” Molock said. “We have a space we can help care for together, that we can call our own, so we can begin the healing process. Because, Lord knows, with all the violent crime going on in Baltimore, we need to heal.”

After a fraught year of isolation and closed-door suffering imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, signs of hope have slowly begun to bud as tired survivors of the outbreak start to emerge. But an already bereft nation has looked on as homes, businesses and offices in small towns and big cities become mass shooting sites: Atlanta; Boulder, Colorado; Rock Hill, South Carolina.

While the pace of mass shootings may have slowed during the public health crisis, violence did not abate. In Baltimore, 2020′s homicide count dipped only slightly from 2019′s, which saw 348 killings, police data show, most of them in shootings.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who attended Saturday’s event and helped participants turn the soil, said what progress has been achieved has been blunted by the relentless speed of bodies hitting the pavement, and the toll it extracts in communities.

“Obviously the violence in the city is not at a level where I want it to be, particularly when it comes to shootings and homicides,” Scott said. “We’re not happy. It’s what I am the most upset about.”

The mayor’s administration has short-term and long-term goals for violence reduction. The immediate fixes include learning more about the flow of illegal guns into the city and tracking their origins with a new data tool. At the structural level, Scott said the city will invest more in its children and help “set their families up for success.”

Scott, a Baltimore native who assumed the role in December, said he recognized semblances of his own trauma in the city’s youth. He witnessed a shooting as a boy.

Let’s Thrive Baltimore’s Molock, also no stranger to gun violence and the toll it extracts, said her organization seeks to help young survivors regain a sense of control and work through their internalized pain. She connects them with therapists and support groups, and provides the transportation. Her group now serves 73 young people, she said.

The memory garden was developed with $15,000 from Philanthropy Tank Baltimore, a mentorship program supported by private investors.

Some at Saturday’s event said that while the garden might offer a stepping stone to brighter days, it does not bring their loved ones back or lessen the hurt their deaths caused.

One participant, Charnae Gardner, 20, lost his cousin, Devante Jones, in 2019, during an alleged robbery that escalated into a shooting by an off-duty Baltimore school police officer and a retired corrections officer.

Gardner has his cousin’s nickname, “Tay Tay,” tattooed on his forearm.

“We took a big loss,” he said. “It breaks my heart to even think about it, talk about it.”

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