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'An angel in disguise'

When a child is lost to violence on Boston's streets, Clementina Chéry is there

Clementina Chéry (right), who started the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute after her own son was killed, talks with Maida Jiminian, whose nephew was murdered earlier this year.
Clementina Chéry (right), who started the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute after her own son was killed, talks with Maida Jiminian, whose nephew was murdered earlier this year. (Globe Staff Photo / John Tlumacki)

There are only a few hours before the wake for Luis Gerena , the 13-year-old boy shot to death in Jamaica Plain on Jan. 12, and Clementina Chéry is in a hurry.

The boy's aunt, Maida Jiminian, his 16-year-old sister, and two teenage cousins have arrived at Chéry's office at the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute , which assists the families of homicide victims. Chéry is helping them organize the funeral, but the programs aren't ready. In the flurry of preparations to bury the boy, no one can remember the address of the cemetery, they still haven't written the boy's obituary, and Jiminian has misplaced the tribute from Luis's mother.

Jiminian calls the boy's mother on her cellphone, while Chéry leaves a message for the priest. The girls, wearing T-shirts with Luis's picture on them and looking forlorn, find chairs in a corner of the office. Chéry sits at her computer and types. "When was he born?" she asks Jiminian, sounding businesslike.

"August 25, '93."

"What were his favorite foods?"

"He looooved pancakes," Jiminian says.

"Salami! Plantains!" the girls interject.

"OK, ladies, keep talking," Chéry says, her fingers moving fast. "Favorite games, favorite sports, hobbies?"

"His favorite sport was basketball," says his sister, Gardenia Jiminian.

"What else?"

"He was always outgoing."

"He loved the New York Yankees."

"He was funny and corny."

"He did not like to clean his room."

Chéry keeps typing: "He always wanted to put a smile on your face. Luis was never into gangs. He's never even been in trouble with the law. . ."

Over the next hour, she expertly composes an obituary, scans photos, and hands the information to her assistants, who proofread it and attach purple peace ribbons to the printed programs.

See more about Clementina Chéry and the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute on "The News at 9" tonight on NECN.

The operation is so efficient, so practiced, you could almost forget that the business at hand is the excruciatingly sad task of burying a child who was murdered, shot eight times near the Jackson Square MBTA station. Chéry knows this pain well: The greatest sorrow of her life is that 13 years ago her 15-year-old son, Louis, was shot to death on Geneva Avenue in Dorchester when he was caught in the middle of a gang-related shooting. He was on his way to a Christmas party sponsored by Teens Against Gang Violence.

But with the murders of children mounting in Boston, Chéry has to be pragmatic. "There is no protocol for murder," she says, which is why she's just completed a step-by-step "burial guide" for the families of people who have been murdered. Called "What to Do After Leaving the Hospital," the book is, in part, a how-to manual identifying 31 things that need to be done "from the time the body is identified," she says, "until the time you lay them to rest." It includes a sample media statement for reporters and a checklist of tasks: "Locate a safe place for friends of the victim to gather"; "select the burial clothing for the victim"; "choose photo for memorial buttons."

If there is no protocol for murder, there is protocol for event planning, and Chéry acknowledges that her book was based on a wedding planner.

"It's the same thing," she says. "Except it's not a festive occasion."

In any other place, staff members learning about a murdered child would be stunned and paralyzed, but at the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute the task of dealing with the fallout from the killings in Boston has become familiar.

"When homicides are back to back, it's nonstop in here," Chéry says. "Sometimes I feel like I'm the lady of death."

With a small staff -- three full-time, one part-time -- and a tight $207,000 budget dependent on donations and grants, the Peace Institute has a big agenda that includes violence prevention education, peace activism, and family support. It has developed a nonviolence curriculum for schools and a "Leadership Academy" to help survivors of homicide victims navigate the criminal justice system. It sponsors Massachusetts' Mothers on the Move , a program to bring together women who have lost children to murder, prison , or deportation. It organizes the annual "Mother's Day Walk for Peace" in Dorchester, a fund-raiser to increase awareness of homicide in Boston which will be held this year on May 13.

But less publicly, week in and week out, Chéry offers practical guidance to families in the harrowing hours after a murder as they prepare for a burial no one could ever imagine, where teenagers are buried with teddy bears, small children mourn their siblings, and eulogies are pleas for peace as much as they are tributes to those who died. She offers support, later, too, with the myriad complicated issues relating to a murder in the family -- everything from how to contact elected officials advising friends and relatives on how best to console the family.

"The collateral damage generated to family, friends, teachers -- the ripple effect -- goes right through a community," says Deputy Superintendent Daniel Coleman , chief of the police department's homicide unit. "My wish is that these kids [with guns] could just see the aftermath of what they have done."

When Louis was killed, Chéry says, she was blessed with friends who stepped in and handled the arrangements: "All I had to do was go to the morgue and identify his body." But as murders in Boston multiplied, she began to reach out to other mothers of victims, seeing that not everyone had a support system.

"Losing someone from natural causes is one grief, but losing someone at the hands of someone else is unspeakable," she says. "What makes it so unbearable is knowing that someone else is capable of killing someone you love. There is no way on God's earth that anyone can explain this to you and make you feel better."

Chéry estimates she has worked with families of more than 60 of last year's 74 murder victims -- 37 of whom were age 21 or younger -- plus nine of the 11 who have died so far this year, doing everything from writing obituaries to connecting families with services to arranging the funeral service and negotiating with churches to waive fees. (Families can apply to the Attorney General's Office of Victim Compensation and Assistance for up to $4,000 to help cover funeral and burial costs, but it's not enough. A typical funeral costs between $7,000 and $10,000, she says.)

Chéry also designs the funeral programs that have become familiar reading material in the churches of Boston's crime-ridden neighborhoods, with their loving tributes, messages of peace, and purple ribbons. They are handed out to mourners like theater Playbills. Only the cast of characters seems to change.

She is selective about the photographs for the programs, believing pictures can reinforce the message that victims are inevitably gang members rejected by society.

"We want to include family pictures; we want people to see this child was loved by a lot of people," Chéry says, as she sifts through family photos of Luis. One shows Luis posing affectionately with his sister Gardenia, who wrote, in her tribute: "When they told me that you passed away, I thought they were lying to me. Then I found out that it was true because I saw it on the news. I thought that my world was going down. My heart was so hurt it sunk to the floor. Your big sis' always loves you. . ."

Marisa Coleman says the Peace Institute offers a kind of "one-stop shopping" service that is unavailable anywhere else. "This was not a normal situation," says Coleman, whose younger brother Herman Taylor III , an 18-year-old student at Belmont High School, was shot last summer in Roxbury.

Coleman works in the same building as Chéry and directs a Dorchester agency called Social Capital Inc. that connects area residents with resources and opportunities to build a greater sense of community in Dorchester. Yet nothing in her experience prepared her for what she had to face when her brother died. "Even as someone who is already involved in the community, who is aware of the different issues plaguing our community, I just felt completely overwhelmed," she says. "You are talking about a young person whose life has been ended, and it's something very different from someone dying of natural causes. When my grandparents passed away, there was no media around, there weren't hundreds of young people coming by the house."

Nor were there assumptions being made about how or why they died. "I didn't want the perception that my brother was a gang member because he lived in one of the quote-unquote hot spots , " says Coleman, adding that the first news articles that were written about her brother didn't capture who he was as a person. "My parents own a home, Grove Hall is our community, and we are proud of it, and so was he. I really felt we as a family needed to have someone else come in and set the tone for what we were about to enter into, and give us some guidance."

Chéry advised the family to write a media statement for reporters. "We sat down as a family and thought about: What are the messages we want to get out in the community about him?" Coleman says. "We said he was more than a young black male from Dorchester. He was on a varsity basketball team from Belmont High School. He had a job. He was active in summer enrichment programs. It was very therapeutic for us, because it gave us the opportunity to come together and reflect on his life. But it also helped to change the way he was portrayed in the media."

Chéry's son Louis was murdered a block from where, years later, she would eventually base the Peace Institute, and you can feel his presence in the overcrowded second-floor offices in Field's Corner. Almost everywhere you look there's an image of him -- in a large framed picture, on the Institute's logo, in a small shrine in the hallway.

Yet Chéry, who attends Mass most days at noon so she can feel "centered," seems eternally calm and good-humored, and the office manages to project a cheerful chaos despite the business at hand. Smooth jazz is always playing on the stereo, and almost every surface is cluttered with inspirational books, stuffed animals, and plaques in her honor from community and civic associations.

When Louis was killed, Chéry was a stay-at-home wife and mother in Dorchester raising three children. (She and her husband divorced in 2005.) His death was an abrupt and unwelcome initiation into the hideous world of street violence. "Before my son was killed I really couldn't care about what was going on in the street," she says. "When Louis was killed, I just needed to prove something. It could happen to anybody."

Here at the Peace Institute, it seems to have happened to everybody. Down the hall, Chéry's colleague Janet Connors lost her 19-year-old son, Joel Turner , six years ago when he was stabbed to death in a Dorchester house invasion. The phone rings, and it's Monica Douglas from Milton, calling just to talk. Her 16-year-old son, Geoffrey , a talented artist and top student, was shot to death in 2001 at the Fields Corner MBTA station after two men tried to steal his gold chain. Chéry's longtime friend Patricia Cedeno-Zamor is an administrator and associate professor of social work at Wheelock College, who edited Chéry's burial guide: Both her mother and her brother were murdered.

Maida Jiminian, who works for a Newton-based billing and collection agency, says Luis is her fourth relative to be murdered. "I've been coming to Tina ever since 2002, when Malik was killed," she says matter-of-factly, referring to 3-year-old Malik Andrade Percival , who was shot in the neck during a home invasion in Dorchester. "I've come to her whenever unfortunately, in these circumstances, someone would die."

There is an almost surreal quality in the office in the days after a murder. Memorial buttons are efficiently cranked out with hand-operated machines -- "People have come to expect them," says Chéry -- and a new face is added to the traveling memorial button exhibit that hangs in the hallway.

The telephone rings constantly, often with calls from mothers who have lost a child before; this murder reminded them of their loss and they feel the need to connect with Chéry. "Sometimes Mrs. Mendes comes in here and lays on those chairs and starts wailing," Chéry says, referring to peace activist Isaura Mendes , who lost two sons to murder: Bobby was stabbed to death in 1995 near the Mendes home in Upham's Corner, and Alex, who was nicknamed Matthew, was gunned down last year near the same spot.

Charlene Perry has used the services of the Peace Institute twice -- her 20-year-old daughter, Analicia , was shot to death in Roxbury last summer, four years to the day after the murder of her son Robert. Chéry is "an angel in disguise," Perry says. "I am strong, but she is stronger. She has lost only one child, and I have lost two, but I can pull my strength from her because of the way she connects with people."

Chéry concedes the work has taken its toll on her. "It wears me down," says Chéry, who stopped going to funerals because they're draining and cause her to relive her own son's murder. Luis Gerena's death hit her hard, partly because his name reminded her of Louis's but also because she realized that Gerena was just an infant when Louis was killed, and children are still being murdered on Boston streets. "We have just failed our children so badly," she says.

She acknowledges that whenever there's a murder in the city, she fights the urge to go home and just sleep. "I stay still, and I pray. I ask God to please give me the strength," Chéry says. "Every single time."

Linda Matchan can be reached at l_matchan@globe.com

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