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Victims' mothers trying to move on, save others
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APRIL SAUL / Inquirer Staff Photographer

At the Philadelphia School District Safe Night program , Sherri Mandell of Israel (left), who led a discussion, talks with Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder of Mothers in Charge, an antiviolence group.

It's been more than two years since Donna Giddings' 20-year-old son was shot to death, but her nightmares make it seem as though it were yesterday.

The most recent was at 4 a.m. on Wednesday.

"In the dream, I'm pleading with the guy: 'Please don't kill my son. I'm his mother.' And he keeps on firing over and over," Giddings tells a small group, most of whom are women. "I was in pain. It was so real."

Sitting across the table with tissue in hand, a teary Debra Washington nods knowingly. She hasn't talked much to others about the dreams that have haunted her since her 17-year-old son was shot to death on the street last July, but now she feels compelled to open up.

"I see him laying in his casket. I can't get past it," she says. "I feel like I did something wrong."

Sherri Mandell, an Israeli woman leading the discussion, says in a gentle, soothing voice: "We all feel that. . . . You can change dreams."

While Mandell and the local women sat within inches of each other around a table at Philadelphia School District headquarters Friday afternoon, their stories spanned thousands of miles, an ocean, cultures, races and religions, but shared a gnawing similarity: the loss of a loved one to violence and the struggle to cope with that loss.

Mandell's 13-year-old son, Koby, was stoned to death in a West Bank cave six years ago by Palestinian attackers; Giddings' and Washington's loved ones fell victim to Philadelphia's gun-violence epidemic.

Mandell visited Philadelphia last week to participate in the school district's Safe Night program. The program sponsored nearly 600 events at schools, libraries, and other community facilities around the city Friday night to help build a safer environment and offer activities for youth. Mandell had been invited by Victoria Yancey, known as the district's "guardian angel." Her job is to help the families of injured and slain students and staff.

Earlier in the day, she attended the funerals of students Reginald Ford, 17, and Rhamik Thomas, 16, both gunned down on the street.

Yancey met Mandell during an interfaith mission to Israel in January. Mandell's group, the Koby Mandell Foundation, runs camps for children who have survived terrorist attacks or whose relatives have been killed or injured. The similarities between Philadelphia and Israel "touched my heart, touched my soul," Yancey said, citing the makeshift memorials arranged by friends as one example. In Philadelphia and Israel, she said, they often include stuffed teddy bears and other touching mementos of childhood. "This is worldwide. Sometimes you just think it's just us," said Yancey, who hopes to take a group of Philadelphia mothers to Israel to visit Mandell's camps, which are supported in part by contributions from the Philadelphia area.

Mandell agreed.

"It really breaks down the barriers dealing with this kind of loss. . . . You have guns here. We have terrorism there. But what's left is somebody whose child is dead, and that's a human experience. It transcends," she said. "I'm very moved by what I saw here today."

Several of the women who met Friday with Mandell belong to Mothers in Charge, a Philadelphia antiviolence group that offers mentoring, anger management and other supports. It is headed by Dorothy Johnson-Speight, who started it after her son was shot to death over an Olney parking space in 2001 - the same year Mandell's son died. Friday's event helped her group, she said.

"We're so busy doing the work of the organization we don't always get the opportunity to talk about how we're doing. . . . In order to heal, we've got to do that," she said.

These days, Washington is trying to move beyond haunting dreams of her son, Terrence Adams, lying in his casket so she can gather the fortitude to attend what would have been his high school graduation. His school - Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice in Mount Airy - will award his diploma to her family. Her family also will give a scholarship in his name.

"I just pray that God gives me the strength," said Washington, who keeps a picture on her cell phone of her son wearing his favorite hoodie.

Giddings recalled how her son Andre, along with a friend and her mother, were shot to death at her mother's home more than two years ago in a neighborhood dispute by a man whom her son knew. Since then, her dreams have alternated between visions of Andre as a boy, visiting Disney World and riding his bike for the first time, to nightmares about his death. Sometimes she dreams he's still alive and she's trying desperately to hide him and save him.

She sees her mother, too.

"But I can't touch her. She won't speak to me. . . . She walks away, stays a distance from me," she said.

Giddings cannot explain her pain.

"The loss of a child is one thing, then the loss of a mother is another. But to put those two together, do you know what the total sum would be?" she asked.

She tells people she is coping better, but she has her "moments." A nun told her once: "You can have a moment, but don't take an hour."

Her work with Mothers in Charge and her teenage daughter keep her going, she said.

Last Wednesday, the same morning she had the dream in which she was pleading with her son's killer, her daughter came to her bedroom. It was her 15th birthday.

"I said: 'You seem so happy this morning. Happy birthday.' She said: 'I'm here another year, and I thank God that I'm here. God spared me another year.' She realizes we could have perished, as well," Giddings said.

That's what makes the work of Mothers in Charge so important, she said.

"If we can help save the remaining children we have, we're going to fight," she said.

Mandell encouraged them, saying: "You're the people who can change it. Pain gives you power."

In addressing a larger audience later, Mandell was deeply moved when artist Eliza Drake Auth presented her with a portrait of Koby she had painted as a gift. Mandell encouraged families who have suffered a loss to "put all the love you have for the child who's lost onto the children who are living, because they need you."

After children attend her foundation's camps, they are able to deal with grief, and their dreams often change, she said.

In them, "they hug their brother, or they say goodbye, or they have a loving conversation," she said. "It changes. It can change."