By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Welcome to Third Thursdays! This series—published in the Birmingham Times on the third Thursday of every month—highlights area citizens who overcome odds to make a difference in their own lives or those who make a difference in the lives of others.
What should have been one of the happiest days of Tomeka Walker’s life is what she remembers as one of the worst. It was the day her son was born and the day he died.
“It was one of the most traumatizing and devastating experiences anybody could go through,” Walker said. “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. It was the worst thing ever.”
Walker, 39, is founder of the nonprofit Khairi and Little Angels’ Memorial, which helps low-income families with the burial of babies who die between 20 weeks of gestation up to 12 months. She also founded Stand By Us, a support group for grief-stricken families in 2014, while she was hurting from the loss of her own child.
“The healing support group is for anyone who is grief stricken,” she said. “It can be the mother, father, child. It doesn’t have to be somebody that just lost a loved one because grief involves so much more. It can be losing your independence, losing a job you’ve worked for years. … Grief can really involve things besides somebody dying.”
Walker had her son, Khairi, on May 26, 2014, when she was 22 weeks into her pregnancy. Leading up to that, she experienced some complications, went to an area hospital, and initially didn’t think anything was wrong. When she was released the next day, she remembers going home and still feeling pain.
“I went to sleep that Sunday night, woke up around 5 something, and had my son,” she said. “I pretty much gave birth and delivered my baby myself.”
After her son was born, Walker’s mother called 911, and paramedics came to her house. Upon arriving at the hospital, she remembers being taken from the emergency room to labor and delivery and eventually put in a room.
“The nurse walked out, then she came back in. I remember she was standing close enough to me that I could tap her on the shoulder. I asked her if she took my son to the [neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)], and she said, ‘He didn’t make it,’” said Walker, also recalling that some doctors and nurses came into her room and offered their condolences.
Walker described the rest of that day as “the worst day of my life because I had to call people and let them know my son was gone.”
She couldn’t even sleep that night because she could no longer feel her son’s presence: “Our bond was so strong,” she said.
“At nighttime, when it was time to go to sleep, I would rub my stomach and tell [Khairi] it was time for bed, and he would kick back,” she said. “I remember when I would lay down, it felt like he was having a party or something. He would just be moving around, and I just knew he would be a stubborn little boy. But that night [he died], when I went to bed, I couldn’t rub my stomach, I didn’t get that kick back because he wasn’t here anymore.”
What happened next led Walker to begin looking for ways to help families with the burial of their babies from 20 weeks gestation up to 12 months.
The day after she lost her baby, Walker called around looking for a funeral home, and she was shocked at the cost of funerals and burials: “One of the funeral homes told me it would cost $5,000 [to bury my baby],” she said.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m not even going to be able to lay my baby to rest because I don’t have $5,000.’ So, I called some more places. Another place told me [it would cost] $2,500, but I didn’t have that either. One of the nurses came in, and I asked her about it. She sent a social worker, … [who] gave me the information for a funeral home that had reasonable prices.”
Walker, who is from Bessemer, went to that funeral home on the east side of Birmingham and worked out arrangements to bury her son. She had a graveside service for Khairi a few days after leaving the hospital.
Khairi and Little Angels
The next few months were a blur for Walker, but she remembers starting Khairi and Little Angels’ Memorial, which received 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in October 2014. The idea of the organization came to her while she was on maternity leave after her child had passed.
“All I had was the name Khairi, and I was talking to God because He was the only one I could talk to who wasn’t judging me and who understood what I was going through,” said Walker. “I asked God, ‘How [does] a baby’s funeral cost so much?’ I wondered what happened to young girls who lose their babies if they don’t have jobs, are still in school, and may be from a low-income family. I wondered, ‘Do they have to cremate their babies because they don’t have the funds for it?’ … I know [the idea] to create this organization to help people came from God.”
Even though she was able to get her organization off the ground, Walker was still grieving, so it took about two years for her to gain enough strength to push it. She, her volunteers, and board of directors hosted family fun days in 2015 and 2016, “but we weren’t raising enough money so I kind of stopped it” she said.
Still, Khairi and Little Angels’ Memorial helped bury its first baby in 2017.
“I remember it just like it was yesterday,” Walker said. “I remember when a nurse called me and told me she had a family that couldn’t bury their baby. I told her that baby would get buried. … Even though we were low on funds, I sent the application to the nurse, and she had the mother fill it out and send it back to me. A few days later, I went to the hospital to meet the family, and I told them they didn’t have to worry about the burial for their son because our organization would take care of it. The mother just broke down.”
Walker could relate to the mother because “I remember being that mother and feeling that pain,” she said.
Since then, Walker, who doesn’t have any other children, has been able to help other families. Most of the time, she spends money out of her own pocket.
“I don’t want another mother to go through the pain I’ve gone through,” she said. “I learned too much [when my son died], … so, now I’m the middle person. My families will not be told it costs $5,000 or $2,500 to bury their child.”
“Heard Your Cry”
Khairi and Little Angels’ Memorial recently held its first big event at the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham.
“We had a back-to-school and back-to-work Body, Mind, and Spirit Expo,” Walker said. “It was the best event ever. We had about 30 vendors, we had a comedian, we had so much free food. … I sit back now and just try to take in everything that happened that day, and I still can’t believe that my son passing, and my being obedient to God and [setting up] this organization [enabled my team and me] to pull off an event at the Boutwell. We plan to do it again next year and make it an annual event.”
One of the biggest challenges for Walker is funding, but she doesn’t let that stop her from doing what she believes God has called her to do.
“When I help families now, nine times out of 10, I’m coming out of my own pocket, but I don’t mind,” she said. “I do want us to get to a point where we get more donations and more grants, though, so we can help more families and place these families on a path to healing.”
Walker is also helping people heal through her first book, “We Heard Your Cry,” which is about mothers coping with the loss of their child; the book was published this year, and she is in the process of writing a second book for mothers, as well as one for fathers.
“I feel like throughout my pregnancy God was preparing me in so many ways, but I wasn’t paying attention to a lot of the signs,” Walker said, “I feel like He chose Khairi and me for this assignment, and … fulfilling this assignment has given me a lot of joy. After losing a child, I would have never thought I would feel the way I feel. I still cry sometimes, but I’m blessed also [because] I’m helping families that need financial assistance [and emotional support to deal with their grief].”
Click here to read more Third Thursday stories: Sherilyn Garner ; Shuanta Woods ;Taria Jackson; Angelia Strode ;Jon Osborne;Vernessa Barnes; Sanchez Tanniehill; Tyrone Tolbert; Rochelle Malone; Reginald Ruffin; Karneshia Patton; Magnolia Cook; Liz Huntley; Annie Avery; Clover Moore; Erica Robbins.