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Waveney Ann Moore: Giving voice to survivors of gun violence

Waveney Ann Moore

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Dr. LaDonna Butler of The Well for Life (left) with guest speaker Nydia Guity, at the Brown Girl Brunch event during the 4th Annual Healing While Black Summit in July 2021. Photo: Nicole White.

Supreme Court rulings and bipartisan breakthroughs will do little to diffuse the heated arguments about gun control.

Guns-with-no-restriction proponents will continue to argue for their constitutional rights, even as those left bereft by mass killings, partner shootings, suicides, accidents and other gun-related tragedies struggle to cope.

Lola B. Morgan of St. Petersburg speaks of her brother, who was shot and killed in Chicago by a person under the influence of drugs. Her brother, George, was 21.

Lola B. Morgan’s late brother George, his fiancée Andrea and their son, Aston. Photo provided by Lola B. Morgan.

“I was living in Atlanta at that time,”she said, recalling his death in 2016. “I had just come back from visiting my sister, who was graduating from high school in New York, and the next day, which was Father’s Day, he passed. It’s been a hard six years.”

Her family remains affected by his death, Morgan said. “His death has taught us not to take anything for granted, how important relationships and being present are in life, and taught us to not carry the weight of things that don’t matter.” 

A gathering of survivors in the heart of St. Petersburg’s Black community this Sunday will offer others like Morgan a chance to share their stories and lean on each other for support. The Soulful Survivors Brunch is being held during National Gun Violence Awareness Month and is designed, organizers say, to inspire “healing action.”

“The goal is simple. We want to elevate the stories of survivors,” said Dr. LaDonna Butler, founder of The Well for Life, which offers mental health counseling, wellness and self-care resources, with an emphasis on minority adults and children.

“We want to know about their strengths, their struggles, their strategies while navigating life in the wake of crime and violence. To let survivors know that their stories do matter, to support their strategies, because they do work. And affirm that they are worthy of investment from themselves and from their community. It is honoring the voices of survivors.” 

Sunday’s program has been organized by The Well for Life and Quis for Life. The latter is a nonprofit created in honor of Marquis Rory Scott, who was just 20 when he was shot and killed while riding a bike in St. Petersburg. His father, Maress Scott, is president of Quis for Life, whose purpose is “to end gun violence through education, empowerment, outreach and intervention.” 

“We have held crime survivor vigils, healing circles for the past five years,” said Butler, a licensed mental health counselor and certified addictions professional. Sunday, though, will mark the first time that The Well for Life has held a program specifically for gun violence survivors. 

“Individuals of color are more likely to be impacted by gun violence than any other demographic, across socioeconomic status, educational levels, age and gender,” Butler said.

Shawna Chance has witnessed the sorrow caused by gun violence. “I know people who have lost family members. I have known friends and relatives who I had to support in their grief process because they have lost someone due to gun violence, something so tragic and sudden and unexpected and so often unsolved. I’ve seen that grief take on a life of its own. That grief is heart wrenching and hard to watch,” she said.

Whatever the circumstance, it should be remembered that those who died by gun violence had someone who loved them, she emphasized. “They are someone to somebody. We forget that these lives that are being taken matter to someone and they matter to God,” said Chance, a member of the bereavement committee at her church, Walking in Newness of God’s Spirit (WINGS Fellowship), at 18th Avenue S and 34th Street. 

 Sunday’s program aims to “center safety.” Butler explained: “Sometimes, when people gather, they center punishment, what’s wrong and what’s wrong with our laws and policies. And there are times for that. This is not that time. We’re centering survivors and safety and what it is they say they need to feel safe. What are the solutions they have come up with? What is it that they need?”

St. Petersburg City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders spoke of the event’s vital function.

“Oftentimes, during trauma, we forget to focus on how trauma impacts a community. We lose focus of the survivors. Survivors are real people,” she said.

“This is a wonderful testament to recognizing survivors. They are able to share their stories … How many platforms are survivors given where they can share their experiences? Not many. Part of recovery is being able to say, ‘I am a survivor.’ That is acknowledging what you have gone through, but that it doesn’t define you.”

The brunch, which also commemorates the recent Juneteenth holiday, will feature musical and other artists as part of the goal to achieve healing. 

“We are here to celebrate their survivorship, to inspire additional healing action,” Butler said.

“It is light in the midst of darkness, a celebration in the midst of mourning. It’s leaning in and listening and responding with compassion and courage. This is our healing action. So, we welcome all identities … all survivors, supporters, advocates, providers. I want everybody to come. The greatest thing is to show up.”

She’s expecting survivors as old as 80, and as young as 4.

Jeff Copeland, owner of Grown Folks St. Pete, a consultant firm, approached Maher Chevrolet in St. Petersburg to sponsor the event. “These people deserve to be heard,” he said.

“I’m hoping people feel surrounded by people who understand, who have compassion and will sympathize with them,” Chance said. “People don’t want to think that someone they loved is forgotten. They don’t want it forgotten about how it impacted them.”

Morgan wrote a book in her brother’s memory. The Butterfly & The Bully “teaches children how to develop healthier coping mechanisms caused by life stressors such as death, bullying and anxiety,” she said. The book is available at her website, agriotscorner.com, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

“I have been using my life experience to offer peer support to those affected by gun violence and trauma,” said Morgan, a life coach and peer supporter at The Well for Living. “The first thing is not to be afraid to talk about it. One of the tips is sharing our lived experiences to create resiliency in our community. I reassure them that they are not alone, that their emotions are valid, that they are supported through their transitions of feelings.”

Two years ago, concerned about the rise in gun violence in the city, Figgs-Sanders and Council colleague Lisa Wheeler-Bowman launched the Enough is Enough campaign. “We wanted to make sure that we facilitated different initiatives that focused holistically on gun violence,” Figgs-Sanders said. “Part of that was to address some of the basic needs of those who were left behind to deal with the effects of gun violence.”

Sunday’s program will offer an important service to survivors, she said. 

“We don’t give a platform to the survivors nearly enough. Just being able to hear the voices tell their stories, it may give someone another way to look at the situation. Survivors don’t always look like what they’ve been through,” the Council member said.

“It also sets a platform for kindness. Just be kind to everyone around you, because you don’t know their story.”

Soulful Summer Survivors Brunch

1 p.m., Sunday, June 26, Thomas “Jet” Jackson Recreation Center, 1000 28th St S, St. Petersburg. Visit thewellforlife.org/events to register.

     

 

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