2012 Angels Among Us: Ordinary People Make a Difference
But although her son’s killing sent Chéry reeling, it also propelled her into action and got her thinking about the lack of support other families receive when faced with the same situation. Her son’s narrative–good student, stable family, avoided trouble–was an easy one for the media and politicians to grasp. But Chéry knew that not everyone shared her experience.”What happens in the inner city, if you’re poor, if your child was a part of the problem?” she asks. “Services don’t come to you as easily as they would if you’re white, got caught in the crossfire, or were a teenager who was a straight-A student. How do we provide the same services to all families, regardless of who the victim was?”
The following April, Chéry went ahead and celebrated Louis’ 16th birthday. She rented a hall, just as her son had planned, and invited a robust guest list. But instead of honoring one child, she used the party to honor all children. She sent out fliers and asked parents to bring a list of all the positive things associated with their kids. “The only time our community gets attention is when our violence is high,” Chéry says, “and then we’re knocking our children over the head and not celebrating those who are doing what we want them to do.”
Guests brought food, there was music, and some 100 youths received Louis D. Brown certificates of appreciation. More important, the gathering laid the groundwork for the launch of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, a nonprofit aimed at supporting families of homicide victims.
Without pay, Chéry set up shop in her kitchen. As a stay-at-home mom, Chéry was not your typical nonprofit leader. But her commitment trumped experience. Her work became a mixture of advocacy and compassion. Whenever she’d read a story about a murder in a Boston newspaper, she’d cut out the picture of the victim, laminate it on a button, and mail this small piece of recognition to the reporter to give to the family. As the button project grew, it became Chéry’s roving exhibit with a message: showing the cross-section of lives that had been taken.
“When you’re looking at the faces, you don’t know who was innocent and who was known to police,” Chéry says, “or who was rich and who was poor. You just know that that someone is dead and someone else is suffering.”
By the end of the 1994 school year, Chéry and a small team of volunteers had started working with several Boston schools. They told Louis’s story and consulted educators on how to work with students to discuss difficult themes such as grief, death, and murder. Eventually, a collaboration with the Harvard School of Public Health led to a $5 million federal grant, letting Chéry expand the Institute’s programs.
Today, the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute is a fixture in the Dorchester neighborhood. Bereavement groups, victims’ advocates, even law enforcement officials use the nonprofit’s home, a sprawling office set right in the heart of the community on Dorchester Avenue, as a comforting place to meet with people who have recently lost a loved one to murder. In addition, the Institute has partnered with the Boston public-school system to teach educators how to help students heal from a trauma. There’s support for families navigating the emotional task of making funeral arrangements, and each May, Chéry and her staff lead an annual Mother’s Day Walk for Peace.
Though she was late to discover it about herself, Chéry is a born leader. The Institute’s ability to survive speaks to the power of her message. Her life these past 19 years has been constructed around peace and healing, for herself and for her community. It’s why she can come to work each day and sit in an office that’s just a block from where her son was killed.
“This is my revenge,” Chéry says, sweeping her eyes around her office, past the stacks of paper lining her desk, past a wall calendar, past rows and rows of family photos. “Louis didn’t fulfill his dreams and goals and passions. And yet, they’re being fulfilled because we’re trying to give young people a sense of hope. Louis dared to dream big. You can dream that way only when you have a sense of worth inside you.”