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As Memorial Garden Opens, Moms Lead Call For Healing

Lucy Gellman | June 14th, 2021

As Memorial Garden Opens, Moms Lead Call For Healing

Culture & Community  |  Public art  |  Arts & Culture  |  West Rock

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Top: Celeste Robinson-Fulcher, Pamela Jaynez, Damonne Jones, Helena Moore, Marlene Miller-Pratt and others cut the ribbon. Bottom: Shan Thompson, Twoni Wright-Thompson, and their two children. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Twoni Wright-Thompson scanned the walkway for a single name etched in the brick. Beside her, the West River babbled and sang. A morning rain came to a sudden stop. Above the year 1992 she found her father, Antoine Wright, who was 19 years old and months away from fatherhood when a bullet ended his life. 

Saturday, Wright-Thompson joined over 200 attendees at the New Haven Botanical Garden of Healing, a new memorial to victims of gun violence that now sits on Valley Street in the city’s West Rock neighborhood. The garden is a collaboration among mothers Marlene Miller-Pratt, Pamela Jaynez and Celeste Robinson-Fulcher, the architecture firm Svigals + Partners and the Urban Resources Initiative

Miller-Pratt said that the three mothers also worked closely with the late Winifred (Winnie) Phillips-Cue, who died last year at the age of 61 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Saturday, they wore pins with her beaming face, often invoking her presence.  

Like many of the families present Saturday, all three mothers have lost children to gun violence. Miller-Pratt’s son Gary Kyshon “KiKi” Miller was murdered in 1998; Jaynez’ son Walter Marquese Tyrell Jaynez was murdered in 1997;  Robinson-Fulcher’s daughter Erika was killed by a stray bullet at a club in 2013. Phillips-Cue’s son, Lavias Phillips, was murdered in 2008 near his family’s home. In the garden, thickets of purple meadow sage are planted in his and his mother’s honor.    

Saturday’s dedication fell on the fifth anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, which killed 49 people and left 53 wounded. It comes in a year that has been extremely violent for the city, with 13 fatal shootings in the first six months of the year. 

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Pamela Jaynez. She wore a pin remembering her friend, the late Winifred (Winnie) Phillips-Cue, who died last year at the age of 61 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

“Moms, our babies are laying here,” said Miller-Pratt, who took time to comfort fellow bereaved parents, siblings, and extended family members as they read names of the dead for over half an hour. “Just know, in that walkway, we have their names. This belongs to you. This belongs to this city … it belongs to us.”

“New Haven, we will heal,” she added. 

Saturday, families filled the space, many wearing shirts and pins with portraits of those who have lost their lives to gun violence. They entered on the garden’s “Magnitude Walkway” where bricks bear the names of 700 New Haveners who have lost their lives to gun violence since 1976.

Every few feet, families and friends stopped to press their hands to the bricks, photograph the names, and share remembrances among each other. Several paused to remember the city’s youngest homicide victim, seven-month-old Danielle Taft, who was killed in 1994. 

Murmurs of “He was so kind,” “That's my cousin” and “You knew her too?” bounced between them. 

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Many looked around the garden, from the walkway to a tree of life that stands in the center of a large, round plaza surrounded by benches. Across the grass, a huge sculpture of a family rose from the earth. Miller-Pratt explained that “it shows how gun violence shatters a whole family.” The sculpture’s shape becomes harder to see the closer a viewer gets to it. As they walked, attendees listened to the gentle hymn of wind chimes and water slipping over rocks in the West River.

Saturday, speaker after speaker praised the team that has made the garden a reality. None, perhaps, were as fiery as Miller-Pratt, who offered the garden as a space for healing and reflection that belonged not just to her or to the bereaved, but to an entire city reeling from gun violence.  

Thanking former Mayor Toni Harp for getting the project over a fiscal finish line, Mayor Justin Elicker said that he feels not only joy and sorrow in the garden, but also a heavy responsibility to make New Haven a safer place for all city residents. 

This year, the epidemic of gun violence in the city is an open wound: 13 bricks are freshly laid above the year 2021. The family of 18-year-old Tashawn Brown, who was killed last month on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard, cried out when he was recognized during a reading of victims’ names. 

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Westville/Amity/Beaver Hills Alder Richard Furlow.

Westville/Amity/Beaver Hills Alder Richard Furlow, who emceed the event, said he recognized friends and family members among the bricks as he walked into the garden. He spoke about burying his cousin, an 18-year-old victim of gun violence, earlier this week.  

"It hurts,” he said. “But let this be the beginning of a healing process, where we can come together and recognize each others' pain and embrace our humanity together. We all have something to live for."

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal vowed to bring the stories of the mothers and of those who had lost family members to Washington, where he and colleagues are embroiled in a bitter, largely partisan and decades-old debate around gun reform. He later presented Miller-Pratt with a garden tool made from a gun buyback program, through the group Swords Into Plowshares.

“The time has come for action,” he said, nodding as someone responded with “It’s overdue!” from the crowd. “Not just words, but action. And so as we read these names, let us resolve that we will act.”

“New Haven, We Will Heal”

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U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal later presented Marlene Miller-Pratt with a garden tool made through a gun buyback program by the group Swords Into Plowshares. 

The garden has been years in the making. A lifetime educator, Miller-Pratt grew up in New Haven, but moved her family to North Carolina in the 1980s as violence shook the city. In a one-stoplight town called Gilead, she was sure that "I'm gonna save my children's lives," she said. Then her son Gary returned to New Haven to find work. Within a year, he was killed on South Genesee Street. 

When New Haven police called Miller-Pratt with the news, she gave them an ultimatum: two weeks to find who had done this to her son. Then she was joining the search. 

The weeks passed. Miller-Pratt got in her car and returned to the city. She canvassed neighborhoods. She printed posters, put up fliers and stopped cars close to where her son had last been seen alive. Then after a week, "I gave up my badge" and told the police to do their jobs. Someone she had spoken to ultimately reached out to the police. She had helped solve the case. 

"Moms, we can get out there and get it done," she said. 

HealingGarden - 19She returned to New Haven to care for her brother a few years ago and never left. She became a science teacher at Hill Regional Career High School, where she has been since 2015. One day, she recalled, she was driving and saw yellow police tape and stopped her car. An officer at the scene "told me 'Oh, another child just got shot and killed,'" she said.  

"Just another child?" Miller-Pratt remembered incredulously on Saturday. "I stopped. I stopped in that car. I says, 'This is the mentality that we have in New Haven? That it's just another child? Have we become so complacent that we accept this?' That was my call."

Miller-Pratt wrote a grant proposal. She spoke to her students about designing a memorial for her son. She got connected with the Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees, and started rallying for sites. In 2017, she was sitting in the Marsh Botanical Garden, watching three fish swim around a small pond. She was mid-prayer when a voice told her to visit the Urban Resources Initiative. When she did, staff asked if she wanted to plant a memorial tree.

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"I said 'I don't want a tree!'" she recalled. "I want a whole acre of land where every mother that feels my pain to come and say, 'My child is in a better place.' So I was on a mission."

She always wanted to be in West Rock, she said—it the site closest to where her son was in his final moments. During her search for a site, she met Jaynez, Robinson-Fulcher and Phillips-Cue in a support group for parents of homicide victims. 

She said that as they worked on the garden, she made it her mission to serve not only bereaved families, but people who have committed or are considering committing acts of gun violence. Between the walkway, the garden's massive sculpture and the plantings, she is hopeful that people will see and understand the sheer, human toll of a single bullet. She later embodied that spirit of healing herself, as she and fellow mothers danced to Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “Where Peaceful Waters Flow.”

"If you walk in our shoes  and you feel that pain, then you would know that this is something that we need to identify with," she said. "This is a problem that we have in this city. Three weeks, they're forgot about. Then it's another shooting. We mourn that shooting, we do our vigils, and then it's forgot about. When you walk down that pathway, and you see those bricks, you have no other choice than to be aware of what's going on."

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Top: Helena Moore. Bottom: Sean Reeves, Sr. 

When she finished speaking, Miller-Pratt remained by the podium as speakers read the names of brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, parents, cousins, godchildren and friends gone far too soon. With a line of speakers that stretched back into the garden, names echoed over the space for over 33 minutes. Some, like mothers Helena Moore and Patricia Brown-Edwards, mourned multiple children lost to gun violence.   

“Too many names that I know,” said Sean Reeves, Sr. whose 16-year-old son Sean, Jr. was killed in the city’s Dwight neighborhood in 2011. “Too many names that we should never forget.” 

At points, Miller-Pratt and the other mothers surrounded speakers, holding them up as they read. When Celeste Bradley’s voice began to shake, cries of “You got this mother” and “Give her time” rose from the crowd. Bradley tearfully remembered her son, who was killed in 2015.  HealingGarden - 11

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Top: Celeste Bradley. Bottom: Christina Mattei. 

Christina Mattei, whose brother Joseph Vincent Mattei died in February of this year, said it was bittersweet to be in the garden as the final reader. She was moved looking out at the faces that surrounded her, she said—but she wished it could have been for another purpose. A few amens flitted through the crowd as she spoke. 

“I want to say, I really, really, really hope there is a change in this world,” she said. “There is too many lives gone from gun violence. And it doesn’t just affect the family. It affects everybody around us. My brother is gone because of gun violence.”

“Not One More Brick”

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Celeste Robinson-Fulcher receives a gift from Men Achieving Leadership, Excellence, and Success (M.A.L.E.S). 

During and after the formal dedication ceremony, several of those in attendance called the garden a necessary and overdue space for not just healing, but also pausing to remember and pay tribute to those gone suddenly, and the families left devastated in their wake. Like Miller-Pratt, many also said that they hope it is a place where people can come to work out their anger instead of picking up a gun. 

All called for an end to the epidemic of gun violence in the city, which has disproportionately affected Black families for decades. 

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Wright-Thompson, her husband Shan, and her two kids with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

Twoni Wright-Thompson, who is now a mother herself, said she knew the dedication would be hard for her—but she wanted to go as soon as the garden was finished. On Easter Sunday 1992, her father Antoine was killed at 19 years old, just months before her mother gave birth. He became the city’s 10th homicide victim that year. Her uncle, Keith Spruill, was killed just a month later. 

While Wright-Thompson grew up close with her mother and grandmother, neither liked to talk about his death because the memory was so painful. As a kid, she knew that “the odds were against me,” but excelled in school and ultimately became a nurse at Yale New Haven Hospital. She’s a doting mom to her kids, eight-year-old Shauny and five-year-old Shan. 

Saturday she brought both of them, as well as her husband Shan Thompson. Her grandmother tells her that Shauny, whose middle name is Antoine, looks just like her birth father. She later said it was an honor to hear Mayor Toni Harp read her father’s name.  

“I’m really happy to be here,” she said. “A shooting happens, and then people forget. I know that there’s a place that I can go that’s peaceful, where it won’t be forgotten.” 

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Sisters Robin Spruill,  Vanessa Spruill-Chambers and Pamela Spruill with two-year-old Charlotte Rose Spruill. 

Three of Wright-Thompson’s aunts also came to the event to remember Spruill, their brother and the only son in a family with five children. Standing shoulder to shoulder, sisters Pamela Spruill, Vanessa  Spruill-Chambers and Robin Spruill remembered their brother as an active and laugh-out-loud funny young person who loved nature. Vanessa said that she had no doubt that he would have become a veterinarian had a bullet not ended his life.     

No sooner had she spoken than a dragonfly landed on this reporter’s notebook, it’s body blue and black beneath the clearing sky. It drifted to a nearby brick, then flew away. Two-year-old Charlotte Rose Spruill, who is Keith’s grand niece, cooed from her stroller as she held onto a jar of freshly cut pink flowers.  

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Patricia Brown-Edwards. 

Brown-Edwards lost her two sons, 19-year-old Dennis Carr and 22-year-old Kyle Brown-Edwards, 16 years apart. In 1997, Carr was killed by a stray bullet on Congress Avenue. Kyle, who was seven at the time of his brother’s murder trial, pledged to watch over his mother as a kid. Brown-Edwards said he did, dutifully, until he was killed at a home on Kossuth Street in 2014. 

In the years since, she said, it has been hard to go on. She has suffered two heart attacks, one during the arraignment of her son Kyle’s killer. She is “all alone,” she said, and the isolation of the past 16 months have worn on her. She said that when she’s helping in the garden, she’s able to talk to people who understand her pain.  

“My thing is you can sympathize,” she said. “You can empathize. But until it happens to you, you don’t know. Here, I feel like I’m among my own.”

“I hope that we don’t have to lay not one more brick,” she added. “The families hurt. The communities hurt.” 

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Tiffanie Brodie and Angelina Suggs. The two have been mourning 29-year-old Robert Lee Joines since June 7 of last year. 

Nearby, Angelina Suggs found a seat on a bench between visits to her grandson’s brick. Exactly one year ago this week, she said goodbye to 29-year-old Robert Lee Joines. She remembered her grandson—the first grandbaby in the family, born at the lip of spring in the early 1990s—as funny and loveable, “a ladies man” who never forgot to take care of the women who had raised him. 

When she saw a news story on the memorial garden Saturday morning, she called an Uber and headed there as quickly as she could. 

“I kept saying, baby, grandma comin,” she said. 

His mother, Tiffanie Brodie, arrived after the dedication. As she remembered him as a “sweet kid” and doting father to his own children, she held up videos of him dancing, shaking his shoulders and hips on the screen of her phone, smiling from ear to ear. She slipped in and out of present and past tense as she spoke about the son who loved her cooking and always made time for his mom. 

“He was just full of joy,” she said. “He felt like everyone was his friend.”