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‘He loved Cherry Hill’: Slain Baltimore Safe Streets worker turned his life around while improving his community, friends remember

A man is overcome with grief at the viewing for Kenyell "Benny Bop" Wilson at Wylie Funeral Home in West Baltimore on Wednesday. Wilson, a 44-year-old Safe Streets Cherry Hill outreach worker, was fatally shot last week, and friends and family said his impact on the community was deep.
A man is overcome with grief at the viewing for Kenyell "Benny Bop" Wilson at Wylie Funeral Home in West Baltimore on Wednesday. Wilson, a 44-year-old Safe Streets Cherry Hill outreach worker, was fatally shot last week, and friends and family said his impact on the community was deep. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

On a typical day, Christina Jones says she stays busy as a dedicated mother to her four children and wife to her husband, Kenyell Wilson. Things changed on July 1, when she answered her phone.

Kenyell was on the other end, telling her that he had been shot just minutes earlier and was racing to a hospital trying to stay alive.

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“When he got shot, the first thing he thought about was to call me. He just wanted comfort and he wanted to let me know what’s going on,” Jones said in an interview Wednesday.

Wilson, 44, died at the front door of the hospital.

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Word spread quickly around Baltimore, in large part because he had spent nearly a decade working to slow the gun violence that has plagued families throughout the city. That day, he had just stepped out of the Cherry Hill Safe Streets office to grab some food before a 5 p.m. meeting, colleagues and officials have said.

Police still haven’t said much about what happened, or even identified where Wilson was shot. There have been no arrests.

On Wednesday, Jones sat in the front row of Wiley Funeral Home in West Baltimore dressed in black with a short haircut, closely holding her daughter and remembering how much Wilson loved his family.

A crowd of nearly 100 people had waited outside in 90 degree weather just to view Wilson’s body. Wilson’s colleagues from Safe Streets walked through wearing the group’s orange t-shirts..

Amid the tears, his friends and family talked about hope and Wilson’s legacy.

Safe Streets members at a viewing for Kenyell "Benny Bop" Wilson at Wylie Funeral Home. Wilson, a 44-year-old Safe Streets Cherry Hill outreach worker, was fatally shot last week. July 07, 2021
Safe Streets members at a viewing for Kenyell "Benny Bop" Wilson at Wylie Funeral Home. Wilson, a 44-year-old Safe Streets Cherry Hill outreach worker, was fatally shot last week. July 07, 2021 (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

“He loved Cherry Hill. He was born and raised there. He saw his friends pass away over time,” Jones said. “You can’t just be any kind of person working Safe Streets. You have to be someone who has been through some things.”

Safe Streets is a city-backed organization made up of staff members who have had their own scrapes with the law, are respected on the streets and step in to try to mediate and end conflicts between people or groups before they turn violent.

Wilson’s funeral service included an Islamic prayer in his memory, and ended with his burial at King Memorial Park in Windsor Mill.

Baltimore City Ceasefire365 anti-gun violence activist Erricka Bridgeford was there Wednesday, and remembered the impact Wilson had on the community.

“I am just really proud of Safe Streets teams around the city. Even though this is the second person they lost this year, it has not made them scared or give up,” Bridgeford said. “We did not sign up to do this work because we thought it would be easy or safe all the time. We don’t do the work thinking we will get killed, we doing it thinking whose life can we save?”

In January, local activist and Safe Streets leader Dante Barksdale was gunned down in the Douglass Homes housing projects.

Growing up, Wilson was known as “Benny Bop” and attended Baltimore City schools: elementary No. 164 and middle school No. 180 in Cherry Hill.

While Wilson did earn a diploma, his childhood was at times difficult in a neighborhood struggling with poverty, violence and drug use. He enjoyed playing football and basketball, longtime family friend Derrick Johnson said.

Johnson met Wilson through his father and served as a mentor, even as Wilson, like many kids in Cherry Hill, got in “trouble along the way.”

But, the well-mannered Wilson was always be respectful to Johnson’s family members.

“He grew up in the streets but as he got older he got himself together,” Jones said.

Wilson married Jones in 2017 after a decade of dating, and a friendship even longer than that. The couple had four kids together: two boys and two girls.

Wilson began working at Safe Streets in 2012, and often worked hours long after he was off the clock.

His experience in Cherry Hill and his proven ability to turn his life around after some stints in prison gained Wilson respect from younger people in his community. He was always on post, Johnson said, and had a never-ending presence in the community and focus on making things better.

“Even when he was not working he was working. A lot of kids respecting him, man. Not because he was some tough guy, but because of that big smile of his and his humor,” Johnson said. “He had a rough life but he decided to make a change. And he was sincere about changing it.”

But the work he committed to in his community never got in the way of him being there for his kids and his wife, Jones said.

“My kids saw him every day. There is nobody that can fill that hole. Not another man, another husband. No one,” she added.

Mourners walk by a photo of Kenyell "Benny Bop" Wilson during a viewing at Wylie Funeral Home. Wilson, a 44-year-old Safe Streets Cherry Hill outreach worker, was fatally shot last week.
Mourners walk by a photo of Kenyell "Benny Bop" Wilson during a viewing at Wylie Funeral Home. Wilson, a 44-year-old Safe Streets Cherry Hill outreach worker, was fatally shot last week. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

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