Today, Casson Xavier Evans would've been in his late 20s. He might have been in the first years of his post-graduate career, or he might have been raising a family or traveling the world. Who knows, really? The possibilities were endless.
Instead, Sharletta Evans was left to deal with one of the worst possible experiences any mother could imagine: holding her 3-year-old in her arms as he suffered through his last moments of life due to injuries from gunfire (Cover, June 28, 2017).
Casson, her little "Biscuit," was shot and killed in a gang-related drive-by in Denver 24 years ago. The little boy wasn't the target — nor were any of the people in Sharletta's car.
It's not the natural order for parents to bury their children, and the word "heartbreak" doesn't capture the depth of such a loss. What's equally unimaginable is that Evans overcame her pain and is now the founder and executive director of The Victim & Offender Mitigation Initiative. Her passion is helping parents and families who have suffered similar losses connect with those who caused the harm. When she isn't helping families, Sharletta also advocates against life sentences for youths who've committed the most horrendous crimes.
Sharletta isn't the only strong African American woman finding a way to turn her grief into positive change. In 2018, Stephanie Symonette, a Colorado Springs native, lost her father and two cousins — one of the cousins died due to gang violence.
"That kind of pain can take you out," she says.
And that's why she founded H.E.A.L. (Hope & Empowerment After Loss) Community Support Services, which aims to provide resources to survivors. She says she is working through her own pain by giving to others.
Now, Sharletta and Stephanie, who respectively live in Aurora and Colorado Springs, are working together to launch 5280 Survivors Inc., a coalition of parents and others who have experienced tragic loss due to violence. The women want the group to work together to "heal well," by embracing what is possible when they use their pain to build trust again and give back to their communities.
5280 Survivors Inc. hopes to offer faith-based support through healing circle groups, in-house and outbound therapy, grief and loss counseling, trial support, restorative justice education, community service for offenders, and basic needs assistance such as a food pantry.
Stephanie says she is excited to embark on this journey. She says it's difficult to explain how vital it is to the hope and healing of people who have lost a loved one to violence to process their grief with someone who understands.
Currently in the exploratory phase of the project, Sharletta and Stephanie are looking at locations in Denver and Colorado Springs initially, with hopes of expanding to Commerce City eventually.
The two are trying to reach survivors who may need support and don't know where to turn. They're also recruiting and training volunteers who want to help survivors through friendship and support, which might include inviting a survivor over for a holiday meal or acting as a sponsor — someone they can call when they're feeling their worst. (If you are interested, please contact volunteer coordinator Davida Young at email@example.com.)
Nearly a quarter century after Casson's death, Sharletta says she's learned that everything has a cause and effect. She feels incredible empathy for perpetrators who are also children — as Casson's killers were — and who are often in places without hope and on the path to self-destruction.
Evans' upbeat and jovial countenance makes it hard to imagine she has gone through such loss. "I had to yield to compassion and forgiveness in order to function in life," she says.
And that's one of the things she says she wants to share with other survivors: freedom through empathy.
"I give the credit to father God, my faith in Jesus Christ," says Evans. "When I lost my 3-year-old son, my life became a whirlwind ... but I found that, if you harbor ... resentment, and have that feeling of retaliation, you're working against yourself because you're [consumed] with the harm and detriment of someone else."