The line to see Santa Claus stretched 30 feet from a conference room back to the base of a large Christmas tree at the center of the ornate, two-story lobby of the Holiday Inn Express on Gay Street. What a grand place for a party — a century-old Beaux Arts bank building converted to a hotel, with marble floors, 26-foot columns and bronze doors. The boys and girls must have felt they were in a palace.
The pre-Christmas emotions ran high, with children issuing all kinds of familiar sounds, from excited squeals to cranky screams. It was the kind of beautiful madhouse you’d expect during a Saturday afternoon wait to see Santa — kids full of anticipation and fear; glazed-eyed parents just as eager to see the line move.
But this wasn’t a standard holiday party.
It was for Baltimore children — 123 of them — who have been harmed by violence, boys and girls who at young ages have lost siblings or parents to the obscene gunfire across this city.
Millie Brown, a big-hearted woman I first met 14 years ago, organized the event, part of what she does as the founder and president of a nonprofit called Little Hearts United.
When Millie worked as an operating room associate at Johns Hopkins Hospital, she saw too many young men arriving with bullet wounds in their bodies. ‘When you stand right there and you see it,” she told me, “and when you actually touch it or have to move a body to the morgue, when you see a grieving mother crying for her child … then I want to do something about that.”
So she formed a support group for mothers and devoted herself to helping them heal. But, after several years, Millie decided that children traumatized by a violent death in the family needed emotional support as well, if not more.
Thus, Little Hearts United.
And thus the annual Christmas party, with gifts and winter coats for all the children enrolled in the nonprofit’s counseling and mentoring programs.
I met one of them at the party, Jarrod Murray, a handsome boy of 9 years. He showed me his new Under Armour football gloves and said he wanted to be a wide receiver some day.
His mother, Rosheda Murray, explained why Jarrod got to attend the Little Hearts party: His father and two half brothers, identical twins several years older than Jarrod, were killed in three separate shootings over the last decade. Each homicide remains unsolved, though Rosheda Murray believes the suspect in one of the killings was himself murdered in October.
Jarrod Murray did not know the first brother, who was killed at age 18 in 2012, and the boy was just two years old when someone shot his father in 2014. “Jarrod has had a hard time accepting that he didn’t have a father,” his mother told me.
So Jarrod grew close to the surviving older brother. “They developed a bond,” his mother said.
But then the second brother was shot to death at age 26 in 2019. “And that affected Jarrod a lot emotionally,” his mother said. “He’s still going through it.”
These are the other victims — the people left behind, traumatized in ways visible and invisible in Baltimore’s epoch of violence. Children might seem insulated from it, or too young to fully express how they feel about losing a parent or sibling, but they’ve all been deprived or damaged in some way.
How could they not be?
“What we’ve unfortunately learned,” says Adam Rosenberg, a child abuse prevention expert who runs LifeBridge Health’s Center for Hope, “is that, with each homicide and violent act experienced by children, the damage to them is terrible and akin to being trauma victims themselves. Children exposed to violence are at greater risk of not succeeding in school, of having behavioral issues and of becoming future victims of violence themselves.”
I spent a good part of a day processing all that Rosheda Murray told me: Jarrod, without a father, bonding with an older brother, and then the older brother killed. I wondered if the boy could again bond with a man.
And then I learned that at least two of them, both with the Baltimore Police Department, are working on that. One is Officer Chuck Lee, the other Detective Donny Moses, the latter well known for serving as a spokesman for the department. Lee and Moses have started mentoring Jarrod.
A lot of guys gripe about the mayor or issue dark diatribes about the city on Twitter; they never lift a finger to help improve the human conditions that lead to crime. Lee and Moses, meanwhile, have made a commitment to a kid. And that’s potentially the best gift Jarrod will receive this Christmas.
“You can’t tell Miss Millie [Brown] no, you just can’t,” Moses said, when I asked about his recruitment into Little Hearts. “My kids are grown and doing great. So I don’t have that excuse anymore, and [after learning about Jarrod] I just had a hard time saying no.”
This is all very recent, but in his twice-weekly encounters with Jarrod, Moses learned a few things: “He’s very intelligent, definitely. … He has the potential to be a great man. But he lacks confidence.”
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So Moses is working on that. One thing he hopes to show Jarrod in the coming year: “The world is a whole lot bigger than he imagines.” And better than what he’s seen of it so far.