Backstory: Philadelphia's 'guardian angel'

Today, like too many mornings, Victoria Yancey begins her workday at a funeral. Dressed in a black suit and a string of pearls, she steps into the sprawling Deliverance Evangelistic Church to mourn someone she never met - 15-year-old Augustus Favors.

Augustus was shot to death, the sixth child killed here in the first seven weeks of the year. Ms. Yancey has been to every one of the funerals.

So many schoolchildren are being slain in Philadelphia that Yancey was hired by the school district as what many call a "guardian angel" - a liaison between the schools and families whose children have died or suffered from injury or illness. Her job description includes attending funerals and counseling grieving families - being a quick study in matters of the heart, relieving a family's stress and tingeing the sorrow with a bit of hope.

For many families, Yancey brings a measure of calm with just four words: "How can I help?"

For Jasimina Robinson, whose teen-age daughter Tineshia was killed at home in a fire set by an arsonist, help meant being a steady presence in person or by cellphone amid the heartbreak.

"In times of tragedy you find out who people truly are. I didn't know [Yancey] and she didn't know me, but she really touched my heart," says Ms. Robinson. "She told me everything was going to be OK, and just trust and believe in the Lord."

Every day, it seems, brings Yancey new cases. Today's focus is Augustus Favors, who was killed on a school holiday, when he went to visit a friend. There was a gun. And now a funeral. (His 16-year-old friend was charged with murder.)

Yancey takes tissues from a white-gloved church usher and stands in line at the casket. She knows that she won't need the tissues for herself - she's learned to keep her emotions in check, having attended about one funeral a week since she started her job four years ago.

Last year, 34 children under age 17 were killed in Philadelphia, and many more were injured by gunfire. While homicides are falling in New York, Chicago, and L.A., Philadelphia's have spiked, with more than 80 percent of them involving guns. Gun control advocates attribute the rise to lax state gun laws that allow adults with clean criminal records to buy firearms, with no limit on purchases. Some buyers are stand-ins who re-sell the guns on the street.

On Feb. 21, the day after Augustus died, Yancey knocked on the Favors' door around 9 a.m. and stepped into the middle of a group of 50 of the boy's friends and family. Unfazed by the unfamiliar faces and damp eyes, Yancey introduced herself. As a videotape of the boy's last recreational basketball game played on the TV, she listened to their memories of Augustus, asking questions as they came to mind. She stayed until 5 p.m., absorbing the scene to better understand the victim, the family, and the friends. She learned that the family didn't have the means to pay for a funeral. So Yancey called Deliverance in North Philadelphia and secured the 5,000-seat sanctuary at no cost.

Much of her job involves an awareness of the emotional paralysis a death in the family can bring - as well as the tender touch involved in moving a family through it. "I'm feeling what they feel. I'm putting myself in their place," she explains. Her goal is to offer strength, not a distraction, to the mourning.

Even recalling some of her most difficult days - including one last spring when she attended three funerals - she doesn't dwell on sorrow, but looks for ways to reengage mourners, to help them help themselves.

For Ms. Robinson, who was hospitalized by the same fire that killed her daughter, Yancey's daily contact seemed to buoy her hope. Robinson was surprisingly upbeat about giving back to the community: Though the suspected arsonist was a 13-year-old from her neighborhood, Robinson was already planning to make her new home a safe haven for neighborhood children. "All the children on the block always managed to end up at my house," she said with a laugh.

Yancey is on call 24 hours a day if anyone needs to talk. And they have needs she can't anticipate: One mother wondered what to do with her son's frozen sperm. Another parent called because her children were afraid to walk to school after their brother was killed. And Judy Hoyle, whose 15-year-old son Iddohilkiah died from a genetic neurological disorder last month, needed help finding housing because her son's disability checks helped pay the bills but ended with his death.

Intensely driven and generous with her time, Yancey is active in her church and with community groups promoting safe places for children to gather. Sometimes, however, she asks herself if she works hard enough. Though she grew up in a working-class household and attended public schools here, she didn't have to cope with the cycle of violence and grief that permeates the lives of inner-city schoolchildren today. She senses a feeling of hopelessness, she says, and she wants to help people believe that they can make a difference in the community.

At Augustus's funeral she scans the hushed crowd and notices a sobbing girl. Yancey puts her arm around the girl and escorts her to a bench in a quiet part of the lobby. The student, Stephanie Julie Haynie, 16, tells Yancey how much she will miss dancing with Augustus at school competitions.

"Was he a good dancer?" Yancey asks. Stephanie breaks into a grin at an unspoken memory, and Yancey knows that she'll be fine.

Just minutes before the service is to begin, Augustus's mother, Tiffany Talbert, leaves the sanctuary because she cannot look at her son's body without breaking down. Yancey rushes into the women's restroom behind Ms. Talbert and, promising to close the casket, persuades her to return to the sanctuary.

During the service, Yancey reads from the pulpit a "resolution" that she wrote for Augustus. She offers this tribute for each child who dies. Much of the job lies in remembering details. Nearly every day, she meets with families who tell her about their dead children's personalities, hopes, and dreams. She files it away in her mind until the night before each child's funeral when she sits in silence at home and writes. "I want to give it my full attention, to make it real, make it lively, make it something that the parents won't forget," she says. "I want to make it so everyone will remember that this child was alive."

When it is her turn to speak, Yancey, an ordained minister, focuses her gaze on the family in the front pew. She reads Augustus's resolution - a heartfelt weave of her visits with friends and family - in a slow and steady voice. "Gus loved to eat all kinds of food," she reads in one section. In another: "Gus just wanted to help people. He would do anything anybody needed him to do."

Afterward, Yancey exchanges hugs with the Favors family and promises to check up on them. Then she prepares for her next appointment - a visit with Ms. Hoyle, who buried her son earlier that day.

Yancey has been heartened by the strength she has heard in Hoyle's voice over the phone: "That's why I love working with these families."

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