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As violence flares, mothers of murder victims fight to save Allentown’s youth

This summer, with more than two dozen people shot in Allentown since June 1, including 10 wounded in a mass shooting that authorities have pinned on gangs, the Allentown Police Department still has no solid advice to offer mothers like Jeani Garcia, who asked the department for help when she discovered her teenage son was part of a street gang seven years ago.They could offer none, Garcia said, unless her son had been arrested, which he hadn’t been. They suggested no programs or resources, leaving her with no solution. She felt she had nowhere to turn.“There’s no easy answer and no easy solution. It’s not like we can go talk to the kid and say don’t go in that gang,” Allentown interim police Chief Tony Alsleban said recently. “They’re past that point with us.”Like Garcia, Jennifer Rodriguez-Cox and Shalon Buskirk lost sons to Allentown shootings and now work to keep other mothers from the same fate. Here are their stories.A few weeks after Garcia made that call to Allentown police, she came home from working third shift at a plastics factory to find her son, Kareem Fedd, shot dead in his bed. He was 17.That was 2012 and since then, an alleged gang member has been charged in Kareem’s death. To cope, Garcia formed an informal group of grieving mothers, and pressed for preventive programs for at-risk children and ways to reduce gun violence.She attends anti-violence rallies in a black T-shirt bearing the names of 49 people killed in the Lehigh Valley in recent years.“I always tell everybody I wear my heart on my sleeve and my pain on my back,” she said.Garcia personally knew some of the victims — her best friend, Angie Romero, shot dead at 28, half a block from her 6-year-old’s birthday party; and Elijah Butler, her friend’s son, who was killed at 16.She can rattle off the names of all 49 and where they were killed without missing a beat.“It hurts,” she said. “These are all people.”Your View by Jeani Garcia: Some students have been to more funerals than I haveJennifer Rodriguez-Cox joined a group of grieving mothers after her 25-year-old son, Johnathan Williams, became Allentown’s first homicide victim of 2019, shot outside his home in the Jordan Heights neighborhood on Jan. 4. Police still don’t have any leads on who killed him or why.“It helps me relate to other mothers that are feeling the same pain I’m feeling and we just lean on each other,” she said.Every time there’s another shooting, Rodriguez-Cox relives the phone call telling her that her son had been shot and her last moments with him in the hospital, where doctors drained the blood from his brain but couldn’t save him.She arranged her life to avoid exactly that moment, leaving the violence of the South Bronx for the seemingly safe streets of Allentown in the early 2000s.The father of seven children, Williams had a brief professional boxing career and then worked as a boxing trainer in Allentown. He was involved in the community and vocal about keeping it safe and free of gangs. He welcomed police to neighborhood barbecues, believing they were trying their best, as he was, to serve the community. He was scheduled to lead a discussion about gun violence days after the shooting.Williams lived for his community, his mother said. Through his job, he cared for mentally challenged adults. He also mentored teens and was a personal trainer and youth football coach. But it was everyday acts of kindness that connected him to his neighbors: the woman he bought groceries for so she didn’t have to hock something to buy food, the man he talked out of suicide, the grandmother — not even his own — he visited in the hospital.It’s hard for Rodriguez-Cox to see that nobody in the community Williams dedicated his life to has stepped up to help his family get answers.MORE: Allentown moms want to know what’s being done to reduce violence“If you see a crime happen, speak up,” she said. “We can’t get these people off the streets.”She thinks Allentown should return to community policing, which she recalls from her early days in the city, when beat cops got to know residents.Interim Allentown police Chief Tony Alsleban said that Rodriguez-Cox was right — there were more beat cops who walked or biked around neighborhoods in the early 2000s. The department is looking to return to that model when it has a full complement of officers.With her son’s death, Rodriguez-Cox said she’s turned into the mother she never wanted to be, the one who constantly asks her adult children to let her know where they are and when they get home safe.“That’s what makes me sleep at night,” she said.Parris Lane was 19 when he was killed by a friend in 2017. Five shots were fired in a petty argument over marijuana, Joshwynn Garcia admitted in court this year, when he was sentenced to at least a dozen years in prison for the killing.Parris was Shalon Buskirk’s oldest son. Her second son, Najeer Lane, is now the same age Parris was when he died. And like Parris, he was shot. Unlike his brother, he’ll survive the shooting — a drive-by on the 300 block of Ridge Avenue that left Najeer wounded in the leg and foot on July 14.“It’s this black cloud over our family,” Buskirk said. “I”m exhausted.”MORE: Frustrated Allentown residents walk for peace in wake of recent shootings: ‘Stop the violence now’Looking to reach kids before they hit a crisis, she is hoping to start a foundation in Parris’ name that would offer resources to keep kids out of gangs and violent situations.Many of those vulnerable to such violence attended Parris’ funeral, which like Williams’ funeral, drew hundreds of mourners. At the time, Buskirk said Parris was trying to get away from life as a member of the Bloods gang by studying for his GED and setting his sights on a job in construction. She now says he wasn’t gang-affiliated, although he knew gang members.Since his death, she said she has been trying to help kids shed the gang label, mentoring them and letting them know she is there for them to lean on.“Instead of laying down and dying, and just letting the world just consume me … I had to take this and channel it and do something great,” she said.Before Parris was killed, Buskirk hadn’t followed the news much. Now she tracks it religiously and is disturbed by the gun and gang violence. Kids don’t want to be in gangs, she said. “They’re looking for people that care about them.”“Instead of condemning them, let’s help them,” she said. The focus should be on helping them find jobs, get their records expunged, get their GED and get back on track, she said.MAP: Allentown shootings in 2019
Source: Morningcall

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