When I started my college internship at CVAC in 2002, the second case I opened was with the mother of a homicide victim. I still remember the victim's name, but I never saw his face. Since then, I have worked with hundreds of families of homicide victims. I have seen some of the faces on t-shirts their families wear or on funeral programs families bring to our office, but it’s always in passing. I know the names. I see them over and over in case notes and in the list of names I assemble for our annual homicide victims’ vigil. I don’t know their faces.
Sometimes the stars align. Sometimes God smiles on us. Sometimes karma brings us good things. Sometimes there are coincidences that turn out for the best. However you want to attribute it, you know what I mean. And so it went with CVAC’s National Crime Victims’ Rights Week event this year. Victims’ Rights Week was coming up. An artist was looking for pictures of young victims of gun violence. A gallery just a couple blocks from the CVAC office gives space to artists free of charge. It turns out that the artist’s schedule, the gallery’s availability, and Victims’ Rights Week all coincided, so we scheduled the exhibit and an opening reception.
For the “Faces Project,” Christine Ilewski paints watercolor portraits of young victims of gun violence, donates the original to the family, and collages reproductions of the portraits onto vintage handkerchiefs. These images make up a traveling exhibit with a mission to raise awareness of the toll gun violence takes on American youth. So, with the help of coworkers and interns, I narrowed down our clients according to the artist’s guidelines (victims under 20 years of age and killed by a gun) and sent them an invitation to participate along with an envelope for them to return the release form and a photograph of their loved one.
A few responses arrived in the mail. I did not open them. I told myself it was just to keep them from getting lost. If I’m being honest with myself, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the faces. Finally, one showed up with a handwritten note on the outside of the envelope that read “Last picture he took! Thank you.” My curiosity got the best of me and I opened the envelope. Seeing the picture nearly brought me to tears (which my coworkers could tell you is a rare occurrence). Then one arrived with a familiar return address, so I opened that one, too. Same result. Finally, I decided to open the rest. I found not only pictures, but also notes about the victims. Even in the midst of their grief, the families found happiness in this project and in telling their loved one's story.
Then it hit me, the tears I was holding back were not tears of sadness. Instead, I was in awe of how much this project meant to people and of the very small part that I could play in making it happen. I was in awe of how these families let us into their lives at the worst time and how much trust they place in us. Rather than crushing me under their weight, the faces buoyed my spirit.
Whenever I tell people where I work, they either tell me a story of their own victimization, they try to get away from me as quickly as possible, or they tell me how sad or hard my job must be. It’s true, although I don’t let myself think about that. Just like I don’t let myself dwell on the faces. Somehow, though, I am sitting at my desk and listening to Louie Armstrong sing “What a Wonderful World” and thinking that it couldn’t be truer. It’s a cruel world. It’s a difficult world. It’s a sad world. It is also a wonderful world. And sometimes there is wonder in the midst of the sadness. It is with that revelation in mind that I invite you to come see the faces.
Friday, April 19, 2013
St. Louis, MO 63103
Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services