By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times
This is another installment in The Birmingham Times/AL.com joint series “Beyond the Violence: What can be done to address Birmingham’s rising homicide rate.” Sign up for the newsletter here.
Sheree Kennon remembers the day that two of her friends came to her home, kicked in her door, and picked her up off the floor.
“They told me, ‘We can’t let you do this, Sheree. You have to be strong and move on.’ I told them, ‘I can’t. I don’t want to. I just want my son back.’”
On Feb. 25, 2021, Kennon lost her son, Detraio Deshawn Whorton, 27, to gun violence.
“After hearing ‘Your son didn’t make it,’ while you have been waiting on an update is a feeling I don’t wish on any mother,” Kennon said. “I didn’t know what to do. I had never planned a funeral before, let alone one for my son.”
Gun violence has continued to escalate over the past several years in Birmingham, and the city ended 2022 with the families and friends of 144 homicide victims left grieving. The year was deadliest in recent history and only a few homicides short of being the deadliest in the Magic City’s entire history. The highest number of homicides recorded in recent memory was 141 in 1991.
Kennon not only was able to pick up after her son’s death but also, six months later, she launched What About Us, a Birmingham-based nonprofit organization that provides support services for those who have experienced the loss of a child.
Still, it wasn’t easy, and it hasn’t been.
With the help of family members, Kennon began the process of planning her son’s funeral.
“I didn’t know anything about funeral homes. I didn’t even know what church I could use,” she said. “I called a few churches, and some told me, ‘If you’re not a member, we can’t do it.’ Finally, a church in [the Roebuck community] allowed me to use their church to have my baby’s funeral.”
After the funeral, Kennon fell into a deep depression.
“I couldn’t eat or just function at all for about four months,” she said. “On Mother’s Day, I wanted to take my life. I completely shut down because I felt like, ‘Why should I be able to be happy or move forward when somebody just took my child from me?’”
Kennon turned her phone off, and that was her friends came over and kicked in her door. After that, she founded her group.
Asked what inspired her to start the organization, Kennon replied, “It’s like I had a premonition. Tra, [her son’s nickname], came into my room and said, ‘Ma, you’ve got to help.’ I replied, ‘Tra, I can’t help anybody I’m torn up.’ I wanted to say, ‘Why did you go to that car wash?’ [where he was killed], but that wasn’t the question God wanted me to ask him. So [Tra] said it again, and I replied, ‘Well, Tra, who do you want me to help?’ He said, ‘You have to help other mamas like you because you are needed.’”
Kennon fought the idea of starting an organization to help other mothers. At the time, she didn’t feel equipped, so she returned to her job at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she works in food and nutrition.
“When I went back to work, I couldn’t focus on my tasks because my mind was stuck on what my heart felt and what God wanted me to do. The job even offered me counseling services, but I stopped going [to counseling] and started looking up other counselors and ways to maneuver through the process,” she said. “On my journey, I’ve learned that there’s no end to it. … Only hope and a lot of prayers will get you through losing a child.”
Stepping Out on Faith
Finally, Kennon stepped out on faith and used all of her savings to start What About Us. In addition to being a support group for mothers who have lost children to gun violence, the organization has partnered with local and national organizations to provide a broad range of resources, such as free counseling, food assistance, stipends for utility bills, and assistance with filling out applications to alleviate financial hardships.
The group, which started with four members and now has nearly 30, is having an impact.
Several What About Us members recently gathered for a photo shoot during which they painted their hands red to convey a message from their hearts—Stop (The Violence) in the Name of Love!. Helping to spread this message is the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA), which will include a yet-to-be-unveiled bus wrap featuring these mothers as part of its annual Black History Month campaign that showcases Black heritage or communicates a message that is vital to the community.
Members of What About Us will also be going to Montgomery, Alabama, on February 24 to apply for victims’ compensation from Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL). They will be joined by Moms Demand Action, a national group that fights for the implementation of public safety measures that can protect people from gun violence.
“The majority of the Black community doesn’t know the Alabama Crime Victim Compensation Commission program exists,” Kennon said, referring to the measure passed by the Alabama Legislature on June 1, 1984, to alleviate hardships suffered by victims of crime.
“There are so many mothers out there that need help in so many ways,” she added. “I’m like an outlet to the community. I inform them about programs they can qualify for.”
As mother who has lost a child to gun violence, Kennon knows that many families need the support and love she can provide.
“[What About Us] has been an asset to me just by being a strong sisterhood,” said Karen Nathan, mother of Stanley Ray Hopson, who was shot and killed in Birmingham May 2021. “[I am] able to talk with other mothers who understand my anger, my total emotion. … We share the same pain of losing our sons to unknowing reasons as to why, who, or what has just changed our entire life.”
Nathan met Kennon in March 2022 at a meeting attended by families dealing with the loss of loved ones to violence.
“We didn’t get to talk as much then, but we came together later in the year around September, when [Kennon] and a few other mothers reached out to me to do an interview with [WIAT-TV (CBS42)],” said Nathan. “That’s when we began to connect.”
What About Us hosts monthly group sessions. At a meeting this month in the Avondale neighborhood, mothers got together to hug, laugh, cry, vent, and most importantly love on one another.
“I cried and mourned for two years,” said Rose Johnson, mother of Del’Quan McNeily, 21, who was shot and killed on Feb. 25, 2020. “My family and friends tried to get me to go to counseling, but I didn’t want to go. I refused to go until one of my friends messaged me and told me about What About Us.”
Johnson was one of the first four members of the organization. “Plenty of people from other organizations reached out to me, but my heart didn’t sit right with them,” she said. “My heart sits right with this organization. We love one another, and we cry together.”
Johnson’s son was killed a year before Kennon’s—on the same day. “The 25th was our connection, and we have been together since,” said Johnson. “Catrina Carey, [a close friend], and [Kennon] share the same anniversary date, [February 25], therefore I knew that was the place for me to be. [Kennon] is a blessing to this community. This organization is a lot of help. It helps me. We text in our group chat every day to keep each other encouraged.”
During an interview with The Birmingham Times, Johnson said she wouldn’t have joined What About Us unless her close friend Carey joined.
Just after Johnson’s son was shot to death, Carey’s son, Derrick Marks, 25, was shot and killed.
“I didn’t want to be alone,” Johnson said. “Our sons were killed on the same day, just hours apart. They were best friends.”
Carey vividly remembers the phone call from Johnson. “She called me and said, ‘This happened to both of our boys. Will you come to this event with me?’ I told her, ‘Yes,’ and we’ve been part of What About Us since then,” Carey said.
Although the organization has grown to nearly 30 members, Carey wants more people who have lost children to join because of the support it offers.
“We know that other women are going through the same thing somebody else is going through, and we’re here to help,” Kennon said. “We will lift you and show you not to give up, to keep fighting, to keep moving, and to keep your baby’s name alive. It’s not easy, but that’s why we are here. You are not alone.”
‘Broke Down Crying’
Kimyatta Henry learned about the death of her 18-year-old son, Tyree Brown, in April 2021, when his friends called her to come to the hospital at Ascension St. Vincent’s East.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “When I received the phone call from his friends, I was told by the doctors to come to the hospital because the doctors couldn’t tell me anything over the phone.”
When Henry arrived at the hospital, all of her son’s friends were outside.
“A doctor was outside waiting for me,” she recalled. “When I arrived near the door, she escorted me inside the hospital toward the back and asked, ‘Who are you?’ … When I told her I was his mother, she said, ‘I’m sorry to inform you, but he didn’t make it.’ I just broke down crying.”
In honor of her son, Henry posts photos of him to her social media accounts daily, in addition to wearing a necklace and a shirt with his pictures.
Asked how she copes, Henry replied, “I just take it one day at a time and stay focused on my other two sons, especially my 17-year-old. … It’s taking a toll on him because [he and his brother] were very close.”
Brown was Henry’s first-born child, and she will never forget his million-dollar smile. “He loved to smile,” she said.
For parents who have lost a child due to gun violence, Henry said, “Take it one day at a time. It’s not going to be easy, and you will never get over it. Never lose your faith.”
Henry recently joined What About Us, and she feels it was much needed. “Being part of that group has been amazing,” she said. “I love everything [Kennon] is doing with the group.”
Currently, Kennon, who underwent hip-replacement surgery last summer, is working on setting up a 24-hour hotline for grieving mothers, hosting memorials for victims who lost their lives to homicide, and securing a location where she can offer services to mothers in need after losing children to gun violence.
Birmingham’s LaTirra Payne on losing her 16-year-old son. Mother on Death of Child: ‘I Won’t See, Touch and Hug Him Again’ | The Birmingham Times