When Phyllis “Yafah” Duncan, the founder of Mothers of Murdered Sons (MOMS), a support group for parents who have lost children to gun violence, decided to gather her fellow MOMS members and plant a memorial garden in nearby Bellwood, they captured the attention of local press, elected officials, volunteers and many community members.
Now, 11 years later, the garden, a physical memorial for those whose lives have been lost to violence, is no longer a local novelty and many volunteers who were once active in its cultivation have moved on. Duncan, however, hasn’t stopped her careful cultivation of the tranquil outdoor space.
On May 16, Duncan was out in the garden with about two dozen volunteers, many of them members of Oak Park-Austin Area Moms Demand Action, a local branch of the national organization that advocates for stronger gun laws.
Denise McDermott, an Oak Park resident and member of Moms Demand Action, said the village of River Forest donated bottles of water and snacks for Saturday’s cleanup, a gesture of outreach she hopes will resonate beyond village hall and into the wider community.
“I want River Forest to do more,” said McDermott, who said she lived in the village for 30 years before recently moving to Oak Park.
For its part, Moms Demand Action was so inspired by Duncan’s garden that the group is planning on planting a memorial\ garden of its own in Austin.
Jenna Leving Jacobson, an Oak Park resident and head of the Oak Park and Austin Area chapter of Moms Demand Action, said the chapter has identified a vacant lot at 4900 W. Augusta in Austin that is owned by the Cook County Land Bank.
“This is a really beautiful model,” Jacobson said. “It’s a beautiful memorial space. Survivor moms need a space to breathe and to process and to gather.”
Jacobson said “we’ve applied, it’s gone up the chain, we haven’t been denied but we haven’t heard back, and a lot of local gardening organizations have volunteered to help us navigate the process — we just need the space.”
Duncan said the parcel of land for the Bellwood garden was a gift made possible by ComEd, Proviso Township and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Over the years, volunteers have added various memorials within the Peace Garden in memory of loved ones lost to gun violence.
Duncan said as powerful as the garden may be as a memorial to commemorate the dead, it’s also designed to be a balm for the living.
“Some of the MOMS in Proviso Township don’t come out like they used to and that’s alright, because part of our journey is to get better,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me that they don’t show up to different things, because they’ve gotten to where they need to be, they’re healing and that’s what this is all about.
Duncan, who founded MOMS back in 2005, after her only son’s murder, said she’s also been told of a memorial garden rising up in Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham community.
As Duncan spoke on Sunday afternoon, a name gleaned from a placard on the park bench on which she sat. Duncan said Andre Voice built the bench in memory of his nephew, Quentin Tillison, a 37-year-old who was fatally shot in Schaumburg in 2017.
“Andre heard the moms talking about how they wanted somewhere to sit and so he came out here and built this bench right here in the park,” Duncan said. “We just want to keep the memory of our children alive. It would be a shame for this to just disappear.”
Oak Park-Austin Area Moms Demand Action will host its next membership meeting on Zoom at 7:30 p.m. on May 19. To RSVP for the meeting, visit: https://bit.ly/33UZo68.