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Shambhala Sun | July 1998

Remember the Names of the Children

By: Today there's a war going on, a holocaust against children in the inner city.
Six children died in violence in just two weeks in our little neighborhood in Baltimore. Thirty-seven kids died violently in Baltimore just in the first two months of this year. This may happen in all cultures, but we African-Americans are doing it a lot, and we're doing it to ourselves.

Kids are dying violently, and it's the children who are killing each other.
I've lived in Baltimore almost all my life. I was born in my aunt and uncle's house down in St. Mary's County and stayed with them until I turned three. My mother, Helen C. Curtis, was sick in the hospital with TB. She got better and we moved to Baltimore City, where we lived in the Somerset Projects. My mother raised three girls and put all of us through Catholic school. Nineteen years ago I got married to a wonderful person, Derrich Jerome Willis. We have four children.
In 1987 I was asked by Pastor Ed Miller, of Augustana Lutheran Church, to work in the Discovery After-School Program. Since that time it's expanded into a summer camp for 200 children and teens, a basketball league, a community choir and a youth academy. Leaders of the church operate all these programs as volunteers.
On January 3, 1996, James Smith, a little boy three years old, was killed while he was sitting in a barbershop in Baltimore. I watched it on the TV news that night. After that I couldn't sleep. While I was lying in bed I tried to remember the name of the last child who was killed in Baltimore, and I couldn't. Then God woke me up. He said, "Baltimore needs something visible for people to see." He said, "Lola, we need a Children's Memorial Museum."
I talked to Pastor Miller. Then we went to Reverend Karen Brau and Michelle Stokes from Amazing Grace Lutheran Church; to Gary Gillespie, Lorrie Schoettler, and Paul Booker from American Friends Service Committee; to Kevin B. Johnson at the Johns Hopkins Department of Pediatrics, and to the Baltimore Zen Center. We started having meetings and planning events.
We saw the Children's Memorial Museum as a healing place, with pictures of all the children who - d been killed in violence in Baltimore. Their parents could come and help take care of the pictures and papers of their children. They could help other children, too. We envisioned a store selling peace items and a peace game that the young people could market.
We envisioned programs in the arts, and in meditation, so that the children would learn how to be quiet. There would be a peace mural on the outside of the building that the children would do, and an outside play area. We also envisioned a legal defense fund and a lawyers' referral system for children who get into trouble, to help mothers or fathers who don't want to see their children going to jail. We even found a building for the museum, what was once Holy Trinity Church at 4000 Sinclair Lane.
We talked to an architect. It will take about $55,000 to renovate it from the inside. So we started doing fundraising. We had a basketball game between our kids and the people from 92Q radio station, and 250 people came out on a rainy night. We're planning a fashion show for May. We went to talk to the mayor.
Wayne Martin Rabb was shot just a few weeks ago. There was a fight and he was shot in the back twice. I went to the funeral and wrote his parents a card that we were doing a vigil for him on Valentine's Day. As soon as I got home his father called me and said that they would like to be a part of the vigil. He gave me a T-shirt with his son's picture on it. I have been wearing it ever since. He wants to put his son's story in the Children's Memorial Museum.
The museum is just one part of our project; there are two others. We've started to give our children training in alternatives to violence. The American Friends Service Committee gives this training to our kids in different churches after school. We're also looking to start a Peace Community, where people with different skills will live communally and give of those skills to the community.
Last October my nephew got life plus 35 for manslaughter. He's 21 years old. I went with my sister-in-law to the courthouse every single day. At the end of the trial I went to the detective from homicide and said to him, "We're not all bad people," and he said, "I know that." Then I gave him the material on the Children's Memorial Museum and I challenged him to come to the community, talk to the children, and tell them, "I don't want to see your face in homicide."
He hasn't come yet. He said things will never change, and that got me to work even harder so that they will change.
Since I started to work on the museum I have been places where I never thought I would be. Last October I met the actor Kyle Secor. I talked to him about the Children's Memorial Museum, and he took me on the set of the television program, "Homicide: Life on the Streets," which takes place in Baltimore. They ended up writing a scene in one of their shows in which the detectives walk through a Children's Memorial Museum talking about how many children get killed in our cities. They also said that if children continue to die like they're doing now, the museum will need to be as big as a stadium.
I am not a hero or saint. I just wish all children could go to school with peace of mind, not worrying about someone shooting them or stabbing or beating up on them. I love children and respect them, listen to them and learn from them. I tell them that they are very special and that they can do anything they set out to do if they stay focused on their goal.
It's especially good when the children come and say they love what's going on. They've got big brown eyes and they're looking at you and thanking you all at the same time. Or they grow up and then they come up and say, "Hi, Miss Lola. I am doing this and that." That's the reward. I want this to be a model.
After we do the Children's Memorial Museum in Baltimore, with the training in alternatives to violence and the peace community, I want to take this to other cities around the country. I envision people learning to live together in peace. All my life I've been on a spiritual journey. This is where it's taking me now. If God wants them to turn this around, He might just start it with me. Let peace start with me.

Lola Willis is a member of the New Horizons Lutheran Church, director of its Discovery After-School Program, and the creator of the Children's Memorial Museum and the Peace Community of Baltimore. For more information on the Children's Memorial Museum, call 410-485-6644.

    Remember the Names of the Children, Lola Willis, Shambhala Sun, July 1998.

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