As Circles Of Grief Grow Wider In South LA, The Supports Grow Stronger
On a wall next to Kathy Wooten's kitchen in South Los Angeles are photos of her two oldest sons, Branden and Kejuan. The pictures are blown up to the size of posters, larger than life. The sons are dead, murdered months apart in gang-related violence in 2008.
"I tried everything in my power to deter 'em, to keep 'em busy — to keep 'em in church," Wooten says of her sons.
But the gangs in South Los Angeles were established in the area long before her sons were born — and their pull is still very strong. This summer alone, the region experienced a rash of gang-related shootings.
"I done seen it all," Wooten says. And she's not alone. Wooten, a gang intervention worker, started a grief and support group for families affected by the violence. She says she's seen over a hundred mothers like her, whose children have been injured or killed in shootings.
"Kathy's family was my first foray into a mother and gang violence and losing her children," says Arvis Jones, who, back in 2008, was working as a grief and trauma counselor. Since then, the two of them have remained friends. "And wouldn't you know, when it happened to me later in the same year it happened to Kathy."
Jones' son was shot and killed by a gang member, in a case of mistaken identity.
"It was a young person that killed him, didn't even have enough sense to know he wasn't who they were looking for."
Jones knew full well what unresolved grief does to mothers: "They either do one or two things — they get depressed and stay home and close the shades, or they get out there."
And Jones got out there. She began volunteering as a crisis response worker, going to crime scenes and attending funerals.
Betty Day, And The Day's End
In South LA, there's a small shaded patch of land where kids are safe and don't go hungry. It goes by the unofficial name of Betty's Park. That's because it's patrolled by Betty Day, who keeps one eye on the games in the park and the other on the street.
"Sometimes she's out there on the streets at 3 o'clock in the morning," Jones says of Day, whom she introduces to me. "She's now 76 and we try to slow her down."
When I meet her, she's just gotten back from the hospital.
"I will not stay in the hospital," Day says. "I have to come home. I've gotta come see about these children."
Their moms, too. You'll often find them in the shade sitting in plastic lawn chairs, listening to the advice of the woman they call "Mamma Day."
"We have quite a few people around here that have lost their children. That's a difficult thing," Day says. "It's hard bringing up children here."
Jones has one more stop before her day ends: Amalia Reyez, a young mother she has been helping since Reyez's 3-year-old son died in an accident. On this day, Reyez is marking the anniversary of his death. What's more, she's worried about her older son, too.
Jones steps out of her car and gives her a hug.
"We'll get him some help," Jones says. "We'll get him some help."
It's another promise made from one mother to another — in an ever-expanding circle of support in South LA.
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