By Melanie Zanona
9:12 AM CDT, May 1, 2013
When Joy McCormack's son was murdered after a Halloween party in 2009, she was lost: not only in trying to rationalize why this senseless act occurred, but also in the horrific aftermath of navigating everything from emergency rooms to courtrooms.
"I looked in the phone book, I looked online, but I could find no resources to help me," McCormack said. "I was so outraged and so shocked. I thought, 'How could this be happening to me? What's going on? Why is no one helping me?' "
McCormack's son--Francisco "Frankie" Valencia--was a DePaul University honors student who was awarded an Illinois Lincoln Laureate Award for his excellence in leadership and service. He was active on the campus community and campaigned for Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
But two semesters shy of graduation, and days before he was to receive the Laureate award, Valencia was gunned down by a gangbanger who was angry for being kicked out of a party.
During his time at DePaul, Valencia had a mantra that he often posed to family and friends: "We are the future. How will you make it better? How will you be remembered?"
Just six months after Valencia's death, McCormack seemed to answer her son's question by starting a nonprofit organization called Chicago's Citizens for Change, which aims to support victims' families, reduce youth violence and chip away at the stereotypes often associated with gun murders.
"I knew that I was outraged, but I didn't know where to begin," McCormack said. "So that was my first goal, to get people connected and get people together."
Her first step to kick-start the organization was to put together a steering committee that includes professionals, community leaders and volunteers who believe in her cause. McCormack then held focus groups to assess the greatest needs for families who have lost a loved one to violence.
"When people go through this kind of experience, the trauma that you're left with, the post-traumatic stress, the depression, the consequences of that are extremely paralyzing," McCormack said. "Imagine living in a community where half the block is paralyzed in that way?"
While the members of CCC regularly testify at legislative hearings and attend anti-violence and gun rallies, McCormack said the part of the program that specifically targets the families, dubbed "Chicago Survivors," is the most critical aspect of the organization.
"It's really important to create a program so that every family that goes through this is supported in their experience and knows they aren't alone," McCormack said.
Chicago Survivors holds support group meetings every six weeks for victims' families to get together and share their experiences. The program also provides referrals for grief counseling and funeral services, guides families through court proceedings and helps them get in touch with detectives.
"We walk through every step in the process," McCormack said. "If the case is unsolved, we try to get people to come forward and break the code of silence. If the case is solved, we help them prepare for what can be a very difficult legal process and trial and sentencing."
The domestic violence hotline has agreed to help host a 24/7 "Chicago Survivors hotline" in the future. Eventually, McCormack also hopes to have a "palm card" that is distributed to every victim's family on first response--just like the ones that are given to domestic violence victims--that provides the hotline number, website and basic information on how to get help.
But her biggest hurdle, like most nonprofit organizations, is raising adequate funds. Despite working a full-time job and not receiving any compensation for her work with CCC, McCormack tirelessly fundraises and sinks all her free time into the organization.
In addition to supporting families, McCormack has worked to educate youth about violence by providing her personal story to Steppenwolf Theater for an ongoing play series, "How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence," which wrapped up in March.
"By sharing our experiences and allowing our lived experiences to become real, a lot of people connected to this issue in a way that they hadn't previously connected," McCormack said.
Miles Harvey wrote the play, which toured in libraries and was designed to be discussed in high school classrooms, based on the stories of Chicago murder victims and their families, although he was instantly drawn to Valencia and McCormack's story.
"I do think for the thousands of young people who saw (the play), it was a profound experience," said Harvey, an English professor at DePaul. "Frankie's an important character because he made important choices about how he wanted to live his life and spoke about them eloquently. He's an inspiration, and I think kids can mourn him and relate to him in a powerful way."
Harvey interviewed victims' families, gang members, cops, clergy and community activists for the play. He met with McCormack multiple times, and she even shared Frankie's personal writings and videos, so Harvey was able to paint a vivid picture of Frankie even though they had never met.
Both the play and CCC were only dreams for Harvey and McCormack during their initial meetings. Now, the play is being turned into a book, and CCC is close to becoming a staple of support for murder victim's families in Chicago.
"One of the things that's been exceptional for me is to watch how Joy's dealt with the pain in an incredibly positive way," Harvey said. "It doesn't bring Frankie back, but I think it honors him in a profoundly beautiful way."
Melanie Zanona is a RedEye special contributor.
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