Mary Coleman never dreamed that her family would become a statistic of gun violence.
But Coleman, a single mother of six who lives in Inglewood, was stunned when gunfire claimed three of her children.
"I knew there were gangs out there, but mostly we stayed to ourselves," said Coleman, who stated that she raised a close knit family. "I was always protective of my children."
As gun and gang violence continues to claim innocent lives throughout Southern California, countless families have been shattered by the pain of losing their loved ones forever.
Coleman said her daughter, Denise, 24, was the first to lose her life to a shooting. "Denise was lively and talkative," recalls Coleman. "She liked all kinds of music and she liked to dance. She had just gotten a job at Northrup and had just returned from attending their orientation. When she got back from the orientation, she said, 'I'll be right back, mama.'"
Coleman said that that was the last time she saw her daughter alive. "She walked out the door and never came back," Coleman said sadly.
When her daughter didn't show up to work or pick up her check, she knew something was wrong. "I placed a missing person's notice in the newspaper. "The police finally located her car near Hillcrest Avenue," said Coleman, who said the area was once called "the jungle." Coleman still had no idea what had happened to her daughter.
It was three months later when police finally located Denise's body. "Someone had murdered her and dumped her body in the ocean near Tijuana, Mexico," said Coleman, who said that Denise left behind a son.
"I don't know what happened-the police told me that Denise was at the wrong place at the wrong time."
Tragedy struck again several years later when Coleman's son, Ugwan, was also slain by gun violence. "That particular day, I had promised Ugwan that I was going to fix him some enchiladas, but I didn't feel like cooking that day," said Coleman, who said that Ugwan, who loved the church, was a cheerful boy full of fun. "Ugwan always used to say, 'I'm a lover, not a fighter.' Ugwan said he was going to the store to get a burrito and a soda. I used to call him teddy bear because he was chubby and he loved to eat."
Coleman said she had a funny feeling when Ugwan strolled out the door. "I didn't feel right about him going to the store," she recalled. "I had had a strange dream three months before where they were crucifying Jesus. I saw His disciples, but I could not see his face. I remember His arms were stretched wide on each side. I said, 'Who was that?' Whoever it was, they had long sideburns just like Ugwan had. After I had the dream, I woke up because it looked so real."
Coleman said that police later told her that as her son was walking to the store, a boy approached him. "He stopped Ugwan and began talking to him," recalled Coleman. "Then a car came around the corner and parked at Hill and Beach Streets in Inglewood. They blocked Ugwan's way. Ugwan started running and they shot him three times in the back."
Coleman said she was standing in her kitchen when suddenly she heard gun shots. 'I said, 'Oh, my God.' I thought somebody else's child had gotten shot. I never dreamed that it was my own child. I started praying for the mother and the family, not realizing that I was the mother who was going to need prayer."
Coleman said she fell asleep and was awakened when a neighbor knocked on her door. "My neighbor said, 'Mary, try to compose yourself.' I turned to her and said, 'Please don't tell me that they shot my baby.'"
She said, 'Yes, it was.' I jumped up and screamed, 'No!"
Coleman said that Ugwan was rushed to Centinela Hospital Medical Center in critical condition. Then they rushed him to the Martin Luther King Jr. trauma unit."
Wracked with grief, Coleman said she prayed that her son would be all right. "Then a doctor slowly walked into the room and said that Ugwan had passed. I was stunned," she said.
When Coleman went to see her son in the emergency room, she was struck by a similarity in the dream she had had months before. "Ugwan's hands were stretched out on each side like the cross I saw in my dream," said Coleman. "I prayed and asked the Lord to give me strength, but my heart was broken in little bitty pieces."
Tragedy struck again when Coleman's oldest son, Craig, 39, a mechanic, was murdered in 2003. "He liked working on women's cars," recalls Coleman. "I remember on this particular day, a lady came to pick Craig up in a car. I jumped up and ran out and looked out the window, but he was gone. I was going to tell him, 'Don't go' because I got this strange feeling."
According to information supplied by the police, Craig was working on the woman's car when the woman's brother, a known member of the Bloods gang, approached him. "He thought Craig was a gang member," said Coleman. "My son and this guy got into a fight and this guy pulled out a gun. He shot my son in his hands, back and in his liver. I don't know how many times my son was shot," Coleman said sadly.
With three children gone, grief overtook Coleman, who desperately sought counseling. "I prayed and meditated with the Lord, but I couldn't find a convenient place to get counseling."
Coleman said she had another vision. "The Lord came to me and told me, 'I want you to speak to the mothers who have lost their loved ones to violence.' I said, 'Lord, I don't know how to speak to mothers.' He said simply, 'Open your mouth and I will give you the words."
Coleman said she decided to establish the Helping Hands Support Group in 1998 to help family members who are grieving over loved ones lost to gun violence. She started reaching out to victims of crime by leaving brochures on Helping Hands in the District Attorney's office, churches, and other venues. "When someone loses a loved one, we help and support them from the time it happens," said Coleman. "When they have to go to a court date and face the perpetrator that killed their loved one, we are there for them. When they can't cope, they call me," said Coleman. "We have prayer over the phone."
Coleman said that losing a loved one is a pain that never goes away, but she does her best to comfort those in pain. "I tell them about what happened to my children and that God helped me pull through. I tell them to call me anytime and that I'm available 24 hours a day. I tell them to just have faith in God, to pray and to read the Bible."
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office recently honored Coleman for her outstanding service to crime victims Tuesday during their recognition ceremony entitled "Justice for Victims, Justice of All" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The honorees were recognized during National Crime Week which was from April 13 to the 19.
Coleman said that the sessions are often heart wrenching as mothers, fathers and other family members express their anguish over the death of their loved ones. "I just let them say what's on their mind because they have to let the anger out," said Coleman. "We have prayer. If they want a candlelight vigil, or if they want to celebrate their loved one's birthday, I just help them the best I can."
Coleman said that individuals go through a range of emotions as they grapple with their loved one's death. "We go through the mourning, crying and the anger and then we start the healing process," said Coleman, who said she will continue to reach out to victims of crime as long as she is able.
Helping Hands meets the last Saturday of the month at the Arise Christian Center from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. To reach the Helping Hands Support Group, call (310) 263-1261.