How to Help
Rita Sallie, the mother of 13-year-old Schanna Gayden who was
killed in gang crossfire on June 25, buried her daughter on June 30
yet can't afford a headstone for the grave. A trust fund has been
set up in Schanna's name at Chase Bank. Donations can be made to
any Chase Bank. Make checks out to the Rita Sallie Trust Agreement,
account number 2048523159.
Rita Sallie sprinted to her little girl
at the neighborhood playground. Through her sobs, Sallie heard her
daughter struggle to breathe as police created a barricade around
the bloody crime scene. Through her tears, she saw the bullet hole
in her head as an ambulance screamed in the distance. Through her
shock, she saw her daughter's eyes opened but staring blankly right
"My baby couldn't see me," Sallie says
through fresh tears, reliving the memory in her mind. "She couldn't
see her mother. I'll never forget that look on my baby's face."
This single image has haunted Sallie
since June 25, when a gang member emptied his 9mm handgun into a
Logan Square playground over a turf battle; when Sallie's
13-year-old daughter, Schanna Gayden, stood at the exact wrong
place at the exact wrong time; when the college-bound honor student
hit the ground near a "Play it safe" playground sign.
Just 20 minutes earlier, Rita Sallie
walked past the small neighborhood park-a half-block from the
family's Dickens Street apartment-on her way home from the bus stop
after work. She gave Schanna a $20 bill to buy herself a slice of
watermelon from a street vendor and told her to bring back the
"OK Ma," Schanna told her mother,
flashing that million-dollar smile. "I'll be back."
Since then, Sallie has waded through a
wreckage of parental regrets: What if she didn't give Schanna money
to buy watermelon? What if she hung around the park a few minutes
longer to jump in front of that wayward bullet? What if she told
Schanna to go home with her instead? What if, what if, what if?
Then, maybe Sallie's niece wouldn't
have bolted into her apartment screaming, "Auntie, auntie,
Schanna's been shot in the head!" Then, maybe Sallie wouldn't have
prayed out loud as she ran to the park: "God, tell me my niece is
wrong, tell me my niece is wrong!" Then, maybe doctors wouldn't
have worked on her brain-dead daughter through the middle of the
night until finally saying, "Your daughter's heart stopped beating.
We're very sorry."
Sallie raised Schanna, one of three
siblings, to be everything she wasn't-outgoing, open to strangers,
always smiling in public. "She was everything I taught her to be
and then some. She was my champion," says Sallie, who called her
daughter "my lovely" and "pumpkin pie" since she was a child.
In their close-knit community on the
city's northwest side, neighbors didn't call Sallie "ma'am" or
"Rita" or "Ms. Sallie." They called her "Schanna's mom." Sallie
took it as high praise. Her daughter attracted strangers' smiles
and friends' waves like a playground attracts children, she
Schanna also had her life's plans
written in stone: Graduate eighth grade, enter high school and play
basketball (she was a star player at Ames Middle School), get an
athletic scholarship to college, attend culinary arts school, play
in the Women's National Basketball Association and retire to open a
restaurant called "Susana," her name in Spanish, she was once
"She had it all planned out," Sallie
says. "We had it all planned out. And then …"
And then the city's gang warfare
snuffed out her plans at what should be a universal safety zone for
kids-a school playground.
Police say two alleged Imperial
Gangsters stood next to each other on one side of North Central
Park Avenue, an invisible dividing line from the Spanish Cobras, a
rival gang. Gang members taunted each other from across the street
and Imperial Gangster Mwenda Murithi, who goes by "Kenya" on the
streets, ordered another gangster to get a "thumper," a gun,
witnesses told police.
Murithi then ordered 19-year-old Tony
Serrano to shoot at rival gang members across the street, police
said. Serrano did, missing those gang members but hitting Schanna.
She fell instantly. Police soon arrested both Murithi and Serrano,
charging them with Schanna's murder two days later.
Life without Schanna
More than a month after the killing,
Sallie says she still feels unspeakable rage inside her. Rage
against her daughter's killers. Rage against the city. Rage against
the world. Even rage against God.
"I have so much rage I don't know what
to do with it," she says. "All I can do is cry."
So she does, every day, at nearly every
mention of Schanna's name, or a glance at Schanna's last classroom
certification stuck on the refrigerator (on the U.S. Constitution),
or the sight of Schanna's friends playing outside on a beautiful
summer day. To help counter this, Schanna's cheery face is now the
screensaver on the family's computer. Every time the screen fades
to black Sallie jumps to move the mouse to bring Schanna's image
back to life again.
"They stole my baby," she says crying,
torn between not seeing Schanna's image and then seeing it again,
knowing she's dead. "It's any parent's worst nightmare."
Sallie, a single parent who speaks
softly and thoughtfully, visits the playground daily, usually late
at night so she can be "alone with Schanna." A memorial erected
there after Schanna's death is still being added to by friends,
neighbors and strangers. There, Sallie usually tells Schanna what
she normally told her while she was alive-about her work day, her
thoughts, her hopes, her dreams.
Sallie also pays weekly visits to
Schanna's grave, usually every Saturday, at Forest Home Cemetery in
Forest Park, taking two buses and a train to get there. There, she
quietly sits atop her daughter's grave, speaking to her as if she
were alive, playfully hiding behind a tree or a headstone. But
Schanna never pops her head out, smiling or giggling as she did
since she was a baby.
On one recent bright, sunny day, Sallie
pulls herself off the sofa in her darkened apartment to reveal
another smiling photo of Schanna. Stuck to the refrigerator, it was
a gift after her daughter's funeral. Sallie walks into the kitchen
and turns on a ceiling light to see it better. After showing it off
and smiling, she places it back on the fridge, turns off the light
and sits back on the sofa. Seconds later, the light turns on by
Sallie's mother, Joyce Mitchell,
Schanna's grandmother, walks into the living room and verbalizes
what Sallie is already thinking: "Schanna is still here with us.
Mmmm, hmmm. She wants us to know that. And I do, I do."
But Sallie doesn't believe it. Not yet
anyway. She's too filled with, first, sadness, then anger, and now
guilt. She wonders if she "did something wrong" to displease God
and that's why He took Schanna away from her. She wonders about
every conceivable scenario that would have saved her daughter's
life that Monday evening. She wonders what her daughter's high
school graduation would have been like, who she would have fallen
in love with, and her wedding day, and her pregnancies, and her
dreams, and …
Sallie keeps one particular photo of
her daughter near and dear. It shows a beaming Schanna with her arm
wrapped around her 11-year-old brother, Antwun. In the background,
just behind Schanna's protective arm, an ominous poster on a fence
captures Sallie's attention, sadness and regret each time she sees
The poster pleads: "DON'T SHOOT, I want to grow up."
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