Raising and caring for young lives can be complicated and require steadfast patience and resolve. Parenting, even during the best of times, is tough. But factor in financial, emotional and general uncertainty, as well as the strains of the COVID-19 pandemic — now in a fifth surge as students return to school — and the layers of challenges grow and grow.
Tamika, a single mother of two, also has to account for gun violence that might unfold near her North Portland home. Or worse, gunfire that may claim the lives of her children.
“My son's best friend was shot and killed in front of his mother’s house last March,” she shares. “And it was devastating. My son could have also been right next to his friend.”
Parenting for Tamika has never been a walk in the park. At a young age, she was a single, hard-working mom raising two kids. Her son, in particular, struggled.
“There was myself, my daughter and my son,” she said. “There was no male figure in my household. My son missed out on a whole lot.”
From preschool through grade school, an administrator called her nearly every day.
“And it was that, all the way through daycare to maybe first and second grade. I was reaching out for help and people would tell me I’ll never get the help I’m seeking until your son is in the justice system.”
Fast forward to today, and Tamika’s son is now involved in the justice system. He also struggles with a disability. The past 18 months have been a rollercoaster of emotion and stress as the family has navigated the impacts of COVID-19, violence and the court system.
“If I knew then what I know now, I might be in a different place,” she reflects tearfully. “I wasn’t educated enough on it. So in my mind, that’s what the powers that be wanted.”
Tamika is not alone. She finds solace among other parents through POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School’s Community Healing Initiative (CHI) parent group. The group offers support and resources to parents whose children may be involved in the justice system, as well as parents whose lives have been impacted by community violence that has harmed, or even killed, their children. The program works in partnership with Multnomah County and the County’s Department of Community Justice.
“I have been struggling with my son ever since he got into public school,” said Tamika. “The work and the help that the Community Healing Initiative is giving us today is work I wish I would have had when we started out on this journey.”
“If we would have gotten help when he was younger, we might be in a different place.”
Since the beginning of the year through August, preliminary data show that there were more than 800 incidents of gunfire in Portland alone. More than 260 people have been hurt by gun violence — a number that does not account for other types of violence that can wound, seriously injure or kill in some other way.
Many communities across the country experiencing sharp increases in violence are looking for ways not just to curtail the harm, but also to lift up struggling community members who have been, or are most at risk of being, affected. In Multnomah County, the Board of County Commissioners allocated funding to bolster programs like the Community Healing Initiative and its CHI Elevate program to provide support systems for youth and parents impacted by gangs, like Tamika and her son.
“It’s very disconcerting when your life seems to have no value,” said Annette Majekodunmi, a parent and community engagement supervisor at POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School who works side by side with Tamika and other parents.
How quickly the community moves on from instances of violence is troubling, said Majekodunmi.
“There’s that day and then maybe the day after and after that. But it feels like it’s normalized that kids are getting killed.”
Once a week on Thursdays, Majekodunmi leads CHI’s parent group for 12 to 15 people on average who come together to share stories and get information.
CHI also offers other kinds of support, including home buying seminars, financial literacy sessions, information on how to prepare for COVID-19, and guidance for ensuring that your household is well. Parents may also receive food baskets or help with back-to-school supplies.
However, the one-on-one and group support they offer parents is most central to CHI’s work, said Majekodunmi, because it “let[s] them know they are not alone, that other folks have gone through the journey. It’s more or less about making sure that parents have the mental and emotional support they need.”
The CHI team also provides support for parents as they interact with the juvenile justice and adult criminal legal system and works to ensure they receive comprehensive, well-rounded information.
“It’s not just the youth who serve the sentence, whether they are in or out of custody. The families serve sentences too,” said Majekodunmi.
There’s a constant influx of families that are worried or hurting.
“The last one was so heart-wrenching for me because this youth had gone through a different program. He took part and completed the course... in June. And late July, early August, he was dead,” Majekodunmi said.
“He was 15, 16 years old. And it was almost to the year where [another] 15-year-old was murdered in a park. It was the most gut-wrenching thing for someone who was working with a kid and had seen his growth. It was tragic.”
Making and keeping connections — and, for parents, using their voice to advocate for the support they need — are all essential in navigating a life touched by violence, Majekodunmi says. There are success stories: Youth complete programs and go to college, while others come back and become mentors themselves.
“Our program works hard to show that there’s another path that your kid can take, but we have to work together to make it happen so younger kids don’t have to deal with the loss of a big brother,” said Majekodunmi.
“It’s sort of like counseling. The topics are different each week, and that usually opens up the floodgates,” said Tamika. “I thought it was just me and my son going through this. We have the platform to say that and also talk about whatever is on the agenda.
“There were times when I was so tired from work and arguing with my son, but I still logged on. And each and every time I logged on, I felt better.”
Tamika also works with CHI Family Care Manager Babak Zolfaghari-Azar, who has been able to connect particularly well with her son.
“Even today, he puts him in his place and lets him know why you’re where you’re at,” said Tamika.
“I need that kind of support and that’s what they give. When I can’t talk to my son because of the mental part, Babak will jump in and he can connect. And not just because he’s a male, but he’s knowledgeable enough to know how to speak to someone like my son.”
As school starts this fall, Tamika and other parents yearn for normal, even if it’s a new normal. She is hopeful, but still deeply cautious. She plans to advocate for mental health services.
“We need to start at young ages and invest more in mental health awareness,” she said. “It’s hard. We don’t understand it. There’s a lot of mental health hurt out there, and we need to invest in it.”
“Our community also needs to invest in employing young men to work with young boys at an early age. Our society needs to make that job attractive to where they would want to do those good-paying jobs. I’m a strong advocate for employing young Black men who have been through the system.”
In the meantime, CHI will remain an essential part of her weekly routine.
“They continue to do things to help build self-esteem,” Tamika says. “I want to really stress that as many times as I wanted to forget them, they never forgot me.”
For more resources on CHI and other programs, visit www.portlandoic.org/resources.