Holding Steven close
Peace institute has helped Ronald Odom heal, but can't erase the pain of his son’s murder
RONALD ODOM TALKS about his son’s death like it was yesterday because, for the soft-spoken retired letter carrier, it still feels that way.
But this fall will mark 12 years since Steven Odom was cut down by a bullet just blocks from his Dorchester home, with the shooter apparently mistaking someone he was walking with for a gang rival. Instead, they took the life an innocent 13-year-old, the youngest of Ronald and Kim Odom’s five children and bright-eyed drummer in the band at the True Vine Church where the couple co-pastored on Sundays to a flock of fellow believers.
“I get emotional about this whole thing,” Odom said, his eyes welling up as he stood in the raw cold last Thursday outside the Fields Corner building that houses the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute.
The center, founded by Tina Chery, whose son Louis was also the innocent victim of gang gunfire, was marking its 25th anniversary. Odom was there to pay tribute to the work the institute has done to support the families of homicide victims — and to honor his son, who was there, too, on the poster-sized photograph that his father stood holding quietly.
“You’re always seeing the wailing mothers,” he said of the image of a grief-stricken parent of a murder victim. “But I can’t hold back. I can’t hold back the tears, because I loved my son so much,” he said.
In the spring following his son’s murder, Odom said he showed up for the Mother’s Day Walk for Peace, an annual fundraising effort the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute holds to support its programs for families affected by homicide.
When he got to the Dorchester park where the walk starts and saw hundreds of people gathered, “it overwhelmed me,” he said. “I just couldn’t think that everybody in this park has been affected by the same thing that I’ve been affected by. I could not walk. I went home.”
But he’s taken part in every walk since then.
Odom said he was laid low by depression and anxiety that he didn’t fully recognize or acknowledge after his son’s death. He would come home tired from a long day on his postal route only to find himself wide awake and unable to sleep at night. He was so concerned he finally asked his wife to take him to the hospital one night. A thorough exam showed nothing wrong physically.
“We can’t find anything wrong with you. Is anything going on in your life?” he said the doctor asked.
Odom sought counseling at the Louis D. Brown institute. He also began an unusual form of grief therapy there.
The walls of the main room inside the center are lined with shelves holding figures arranged by category. There are those representing war and peace, fantasy and mythology, death and grieving, and many others.
“Whatever object is calling you, you have a tray of sand and you just go get it off the shelf and you put it in,” Odom said. “And before you know it there is something that’s developing from each figurine that is in the sand. It brings some clarity.”
Alexandra Chery, director of programs at the institute and younger sister of Louis Brown, said the sand therapy has become one of many ways the center successfully helps people deal with their grief.
“Sometimes when trauma happens, language is lost,” she said. “Folks are invited to create their own world in a tray of sand. So what it does is it puts a concrete form to some feelings and emotions that we might not have language for. At the end of it people feel, for the most part, really powerful and regain a sense of control where they might have felt powerless.”
While she now works with her mother to serve families in need, Alexandra Chery carries her own grief for the brother who was killed when she was five years old, in 1993.
“I can remember Louis clearly,” she said. “I can remember how he made me feel, I can remember our relationship, and 25 years later, I’m still feeling it, I’m still feeling the loss. It never goes away.”
Her brother was a bookish teenager on track to attend college. In the cruelest of ironies, he was caught in gang crossfire while on his way to a meeting of an anti-gang youth organization he had joined.
While the center prepares for the annual Mother’s Day fundraising walk taking place this Sunday, it’s also mounting an effort to share its practices with other communities across the country. “A national movement of waging peace and transforming society’s response to homicide,” said Tina Chery.
Like Louis Brown, Steven Odom was quickly pegged in news report as a “good kid,” an innocent victim whose only crime was living in a tough city neighborhood.
One of the many remarkable things about Tina Chery, who would have every reason to turn away from the families of those involved in the gang violence that took her son’s life, is the determination she had from the outset to serve all those affected by homicide, no matter the circumstance.
“When my son Louis was murdered, I was in disbelief, in denial, and my life had been drastically changed,” she told the crowd gathered at the center on Thursday, which included Mayor Marty Walsh, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins. “The night of his death, I left the hospital empty handed physically and within my soul. No resources, and nowhere to turn to.”
Once it became clear in news accounts that Louis was not a gang player, but a good student and active community member, “resources started to pour in,” she said. “Though I was grateful for the help, it raised the question: What about the families whose loved ones were not necessarily doing the right thing? How are they being treated. What support and resources are they receiving? Like me, they too are hurting and in need of support and healing.”
She resolved to work to “ensure that all families are treated with dignity and compassion regardless of who the victim was, the circumstances, and the community that they’re from.”
While the institute’s focus is on helping families that have been touched by homicide, Chery believes the work has also played a role in preventing deaths by intervening immediately with families and emphasizing that no one wins from violence in retaliation for a murder.
In Ronald Odom’s case, the person believed to be responsible for killing his son was found dead only days later in a Mattapan lot, himself a victim of gun violence.
“Someone said to me, ‘Ron, you must be glad,’” he recalled.“I said, no, somebody else’s family is experiencing the same thing that I’m going through. And you want me to be happy about that? Nobody wins. On both sides we’re losing. When folks understand that, then I believe things will change.”
“October 4, 2007,” he said, solemnly reciting the date of his son’s death. “And if you ask me, it was yesterday.”