Survivors of gangs and gun violence, these women are now helping others through their grief.
When April Roby-Bell joins the Gangster Disciples in middle school, the street gang treats her like family as she feels abandoned by herself. She is looking for love, acceptance and stability.
“They coached us when we were young. How to own ‘hood, own your street: ‘This is my territory,'” says Roby-Bell.
The experience also taught her hard lessons about life and death as a child. At least half of her friends who grew up with her are now dead. “Sometimes it gets tough because you get tired of fighting,” she said. “Perhaps I’ve died a long time ago.”
At 42, Roby-Bell is no longer defending territory for the gang. Instead, she is standing up for families in the southern Illinois communities of East St. Louis and neighboring Washington Park, who want their children to be able to play outside without fear for their lives. As a survivor of violence, Roby-Bell is a source of strength for others. People traumatized by gun violence call her for advice. She planned funerals for the victims. And, for years, she presided over burials of both strangers and friends. She sleeps with her phone next to her, so she doesn’t miss a single cry for help.
Nearby, Larita Rice-Barnes, 47, also carries a phone that is seen as a lifeline for grieving families. And Terra Jenkins, 50, received similar calls. She often checks her phone throughout the day, responding to texts from locals and nearby funeral homes.
As young girls, the three ran after street gangs around East St. Louis and surrounding communities. Today, Roby-Bell works for a school district instructing high school students. Jenkins is the outreach team leader for a local clinic, and Rice-Barnes is a published author who has spent countless hours volunteering and running two nonprofits.
However, their battle scars and faded tattoos recall their past. Because of their experiences on the front lines, some people trust them more than the police. The women fill the void for a community that fights economic inequality, homelessness, health disparities and gun violence.
Jenkins said: “In East St. Louis, you will die in it. “Nine out of 10 times, the position I’m taking, I’ve only been involved in so many deaths because I’m at the morgue.”
Jenkins, who has been dubbed “T-baby Ooh-Wee,” said she stumbled into a job helping people. In the late 1980s as a teenager, she joined the Gangster Disciples, commonly known as “GD”. As time passed, she became the leader in the organization, a queen in command of everything.
She turned her grandmother’s basement in neighboring Washington Park into a barbershop. Her business became a therapy space for clients who confide in Jenkins as she cuts their hair.
“Like the beauty shop, guys want to talk,” says Jenkins. “They couldn’t talk to the boys at home so when they sat in my chair they started talking to T-baby. They started talking about their problems. I mean big gangsters, they’re crying. They are just pouring their heart out on me.”
As time went on, she became a trusted friend and activist that many in the city could turn to when they needed it. She said, although she is still considered an “OG,” or an original gangster, somewhere, the gang life she knows has changed. The rival gangs started talking less and shooting more.
“These kids act like their hands aren’t working,” says Jenkins. “And they’ve never fought in their lives.”
Instead, they used guns, she added. “Then you ask them: What are you guys mad about? And they don’t even know what they’re arguing about. It can’t be money because recently here, recently here, killing, no one is robbed. A lot of these kids still have money in their pockets, jewelry on them,” she said. “It’s, like, over Facebook.”
Jenkins blames herself and her generation. “We dropped the ball,” she said. Now, she is trying to pick up the pieces.
Every case is different, says Jenkins, but most grieving families need empathy, money for the funeral, and practical help, such as: haircut for their deceased loved one or a space to hold a memorial service. Jenkins says she’s an introvert but gets her chance when alerted to a need in the community. She collects clothes, food and basic necessities. She sits with families after funerals are over – when families are left alone to deal with grief.
In Roby-Bell’s case, her life changed in 2009. That’s when her cousin Keyatia Gibson was shot dead in front of a liquor store in the city.
Roby-Bell said: ‘It took a while for them to come cover for her. She added that her cousin’s two young children were standing on top of her. “And they saw it. And I watch the pain.”
A mother of three herself, Roby-Bell decided to change her life. She started going to church and focused on helping people in need. Two years ago, Roby-Bell opened Recovery Outreach Centera church in Washington Park, where she often shares her story.
As a member of a gang, “I hustled,” says Roby-Bell. “But I survived the worst season of my life. And I didn’t just exist for me. I survived for my three daughters.”
At her church, she often prays for the youngest members of her congregation. “We always protect them in our prayers. We pray for their safety, for their longevity,” said Roby-Bell. “I work in schools, so I’m always praying for their futures.”
But religion is not always their salvation. When a child is caught in bullets, she says, she chooses her words carefully when meeting a grieving family, says Rice-Barnes. She did not tell the parents that their dead child had turned into an angel. That kind of rhetoric isn’t in her play.
“People need pastoral presence,” says Rice-Barnes. “In most cases, they don’t need you to say anything. They just need to know that you are there.”
Earlier this year, Rice-Barnes wrapped her arms around her 3-year-old family Joseph Michael Lowe, who was killed by gunfire while in a car with his brother. But in the face of each family’s pain, she also has to grapple with her traumatic past.
During Rice-Barnes’ teenage years, she had friends called the Gangster Disciples, but she spent most of her time with a rival gang, the Vice Lords. She has lost two close friends to gun violence and has close calls of her own. She feared for her life when a man held a gun to her head. And a few years later, she was lying flat on the ground in a field after someone in a nearby car started shooting.
“While I was running, I fell,” says Rice-Barnes. “I do not know what to do. I don’t know if someone is standing above me.”
She passed away that day but brought with her memories as she helped those experiencing loss. “I’m still dealing with the devastation of what happened,” Rice-Barnes said. “In recent years, I find myself telling those stories, but they’re just packaged up and suppressed.”
Rice-Barnes holds rallies in East St. Louis in memory of gun violence victims, survivors and their families. her non-profit organization Metro East Organizational Alliance Bring residents together to discuss solutions. Dozens of people were present at an event in June where Rice-Barnes reminded city leaders of the need for policy changes and potentially life-saving programs.
The Rice-Barnes nonprofit works with other crime reduction organizations to analyze the data, so she believes her efforts have helped reduce crime over the past 18 months. However, she knows the city has a long way to go. However, this idea of abandoning the city is not an option for Rice-Barnes – or for Jenkins and Roby-Bell. The trio believes their community will thrive again, so they focus on the future.
“It doesn’t matter how you start, it matters how you end up,” says Roby-Bell.