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Helping families affected by murder

Gina Spence

In the aftermath of the murder of her son-in-law, James Lawes, Gina Spence saw how the ripple effects of a shooting go far beyond the immediate, devastating loss.

The community activist said that experience inspired her to create the Gina Spence Production’s Champions Programme to help the families — particularly the children — of those affected by murder.

“They had only been married three months, but that Friday there was only one paycheque,” she said.

“That Friday his wife had to find $10,000 to prepare for a funeral.

“That Friday she went from being a married wife, a newly-wed, to a widow at the age of 28.

“Most families begin to discover that these things are not negotiable.”

Since the programme’s launch five years ago, she said they have been in contact with around 50 children, including the children of those convicted of the offences.

“There is more than one set of victims,” she said. “There’s the child that has lost a parent, and then there are the children of those convicted of the crime.”

Mrs Spence said the first goal for volunteers after a shooting is to make contact with the family and offer them counselling opportunities.

“We decided to find out who these children are so that from the beginning of the process there is a person there to guide them through the maze,” she said. “We connect them with agencies and helping services that can help them with the situation.

“A lot of times we found that people weren’t getting that counselling or their children weren’t getting that counselling because they were so consumed and overwhelmed with the reality of what has happened. We have two counsellors who donate their time and specialise in trauma and homicide. We’ve also trained about 30 Bermudians, everyday people, to help people in crisis so whenever there’s a shooting or a murder or an incident in which a life has been lost and there is a child involved the police call us.”

She added that one goal of the programme is to “adopt” a waiting room at the hospital, making materials available for those dealing with tragedy. Volunteers also hold regular events for the children to help them cope with their issues, including an annual back-to-school event called “We Celebrate You”.

“It’s like a mini-Disney World,” Mrs Spence said. “We have games and face painting and, while the kids are having fun, we are speaking with the parents and having an assessment. Asking how they are doing, how the children are doing and if there is anything they need.”

The programme also aims to support the families through scholarships aimed at providing a safety net for the affected family.

“Sometimes when the impact happens the parent left behind has to make a decision — do the children still do karate, ballet or what have you, or do we keep the lights on,” Mrs Spence said.

“We know that when you pull a child away from extra-curricular activities, they become more vulnerable, and for a lot of the children those are the places where they feel most comfortable. We work with organisations and schools, and they work with us to ensure that we can maintain that stability and that activity because it is paramount to keeping something stable.

“We have also started a benevolent fund, which is earmarked specifically for these children. Many of them are extremely bright but the circumstances make it so they may never pursue a higher level of education. The fund was created specifically for them, and to give hope to a parent. It gives them something to aspire to, and lets them know that someone is interested in helping with their education.”

She said in at least one case, the programme has arranged meetings between the families in hopes of preventing future tensions.

“We don’t want history to repeat itself,” she said. “It was very difficult but it works. What we have been told by [United States gangs] is that in the gang life, if your father was in a gang and you show up at a school, you don’t have a choice. You have to pick a side.

“I don’t think Bermuda has thought this far. We know that in another year or two at least two of these children will be in high school and we are making those interventions, making those talks now. Not everybody is interested because it’s hard.

“One young lady that I taught, I saw her in the pharmacy and she was kind of ignoring me. I followed her through the store and when I approached her, she said she couldn’t even look at me because my daughter’s father was the one who shot your nephew and she felt horrible. She’s going through that and, because Bermuda’s so small, we are discovering that some of these connections are closer than we had thought.”

Mrs Spence noted that the programme is funded by donations, with organisers recently hosting a fundraising dinner at Government House, which they hope becomes an annual tradition. Another fundraising event — a gospel concert at St Paul Centennial Hall featuring young Bermudian singer Adrian Jones — is scheduled to take place on August 7.