What is the perfect gift for Mother’s Day? Some might say a bouquet of flowers, others aim to do whatever it takes to make their mom smile. But if you ask the gun violence activist group Moms Demand Action, there is one thing all moms want this year.

“Moms don’t want flowers; we want safety for our kids and our communities,” said Sara Hines, co-leader of the Moms Demand Action Evanston chapter.

Since the start of 2023, there have been multiple incidents involving firearms or gun violence in Evanston.

In January, an Evanston Public Library security guard drew a gun at the library; bringing the firearm to the library violated the city’s weapons-free workplace policy. In February, a 13-year-old brought a loaded handgun to Chute Middle School. That same month, a gunman fired shots at two men in the Evanston Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses parking lot. 

On Bereaved Mother’s Day, May 7, Life Without My Child gave mothers gift baskets, each featuring a photo of the child they have lost. From left: Kayla and Phoebe Valdes, Nicole Johnson, Charlotte Curry-Gayle, Aniyah and Alicia Guy, Nia Pratt, Eva Jones, Laresa Shanee Jackson, Jamie Lynn Harris and Shenee Benson. Many more aren’t pictured. Credit: Life Without My Child

Just last month, three teenagers at Clark Street beach were shot – one, 18-year-old Jacquis Irby, was killed, and two of his brothers were wounded. 

“I never thought that I would still be talking about this,” said Carolyn Murray, a local gun violence activist.

Murray has managed the city’s gun buyback program for nearly 11 years. This program has removed more than 350 firearms from the area, she estimates. Murray was planning the city’s first gun buyback program in 2012 when her 19-year-old son, Justin Murray was fatally shot in the front yard of his grandmother’s Evanston home.

The loss of her son fuels her fight to remove guns from Evanston’s streets. The city hasn’t held another gun buyback event since December 2022 because of funding restrictions, Murray said.

The December gun buyback collected 54 firearms, 44 BB and airsoft guns and multiple boxes of ammunition, but it could have collected more guns if it hadn’t run out of money, Murray said. The Evanston Community Foundation collects donations for the city’s gun buyback program. 

two people stand talking
Gun violence activist Carolyn Murray talks to an Evanston Police Department officer during the city’s gun buyback event in December 2022. Credit: Gina Castro

Another goal of Murray’s advocacy is to instill a sense of urgency in city leadership and Evanston residents to respond to gun violence. 

“I think that Evanston overall really thinks that it [the death of a child] won’t happen to them,” Murray said. “It’s obviously something that I never want any mother to go through, but every year, the numbers grow.

“It’s not a very popular club to be in, that’s for sure.”

‘Prevent the next act of violence’

Tiffany Rice never thought to reach out to other parents, like her, who had lost a child to gun violence. Her 14-year-old son DaJae Coleman, an Evanston Township High School freshman, was fatally shot in 2012 on Church Street while walking home from a party with friends. 

Almost instantly after DaJae’s death, Rice threw herself into solution mode. She created the Dajae Coleman Foundation to help give ETHS students the tools and motivation they need to perform well in school. The nonprofit gave about $12,000 in scholarships to ETHS freshmen and many hours of free tutoring. 

Rice found herself feeling burnt out from the work and disbanded the foundation in 2018. She took a step back from activism to focus on healing.

A year ago, Rice went to her first meeting with Life Without My Child, an Evanston nonprofit that provides free therapy for families and children grieving the loss of a child. 

About 30 families utilize Life Without My Child’s group therapy services, and many of the families lost a child to gun violence, said founder Jamie Lynn Harris. Starting on June 11, the nonprofit will provide free one-on-one counseling.

Rice said meeting other mothers who understood her pain reenergized her.

Members of the support group Life Without My Child and their children meet at the Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center in July 2022. Back row (from left): Elisheba Morales, Angelique Jackson, Dereka Ross, Eva Jones, Amare Jones, Jasmin Harris and Janet Cruz. Middle row: Karmah Jackson, Shelby Preister, Jordynn Jackson, Imani Jones, Shenee Benson, Randy Dedeaux Jr., Jamie Lynn Harris, Debbie Caluya, Tiffany Rice, Tricia West and Angel Marshall. Front row: Nya Pratt, Larry Smith Jr. and Anton Rouse. Credit: Richard Cahan

“I never really organized or done anything with moms who are going through the same thing that I was going through,” Rice said. “Once I did that, I realized how much I needed it. I get my momentum and my strength from them. It makes me want to do even more and help prevent the next act of violence.” 

Rice became a prevention parent for the city’s Youth and Young Adult Department. The department now has a team of parents, most of whom have lost children of their own, who offer support to the parents of children the department has identified to be having conflicts with others.

The city came up with the idea for the program and is still forming the role the prevention parents will have in the Youth and Young Adult Department, Rice said. In a year of working with the city, Rice has learned that violence in Evanston isn’t affecting just one race or gender.

“It’s a youth problem,” Rice said.

Healing work

Any time Harris hears another parent lost a child, it feels personal. She remembers being in their shoes in 2008 when her 4-year-old son, Jaylyn Deandres Harris, died of myocarditis, a heart condition.

But the killing of Jacquis Irby touched her on a deeper level. Irby’s mother, Marquise Weatherspoon, is a minister at Harris’ longtime church, Christ Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Evanston. 

Life Without My Child meets the fourth Saturday of every month. When members met for group counseling on April 22, a week after the fatal shooting, mothers embraced each other and said a prayer for Weatherspoon.

“She’s not a stranger to me,” Harris said. “She’s like family.”

Rice is close to Weatherspoon too – they are related by marriage. Hearing what happened to the Irby boys proved to her there’s so much more work to be done.

“It was really heartbreaking,” Rice said. “I’m so disappointed in our inaction as adults, as parents, as residents of the city, because I know there’s something we can do.”

Evanston is a small city, 7.8 square miles, with a single public high school. When gun violence affects three students who all sat in District 65 classrooms, all of Evanston feels it. Mayor Daniel Biss emphasized that point before a crowd of some 75 people at the Moms Demand Action town hall in November. 

“The darkest moments of my time as mayor have been moments that were effectuated by acts of gun violence,” Biss said. “… I think that when an act of gun violence occurs in our community, it affects everyone in very serious ways.” 

Next month is Gun Violence Awareness Month. Moms Demand Action is working with the city on Wear Orange events, Violence Prevention Week and Gun Violence Prevention Day in Evanston on June 3.

Hines said the group hopes to see tighter ordinances on firearm storage and host events with the city that foster dialogue about gun violence in the community.

And for anyone healing for the loss of a loved one, Murray has some uplifting words: “We might have lost our family members and our children, but they’re not lost,” Murray said. “They are remembered in our hearts and in our minds, and any type of recognition that we get for the loss of a human being is well received by all of us.”

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Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative reporting....

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  1. It can happen to us all, the point being it has when any of our children die through gun violence doesn’t it affect you…if it isn’t, where is the empathy….