Last November, a father in his mid-20s was gunned down outside his home in the Park Heights neighborhood of Baltimore.
The killing of Kendal Fenwick followed his efforts to build a fence around his house to protect his family from the drug trafficking that was taking place in Park Heights. At the time, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said that a “cowardly, insecure little punk” must have been responsible for the slaying. Left behind were three young children whom Mr. Fenwick was raising.
In the aftermath, Fenwick’s father turned to Roberta’s House, a support center in Baltimore for children, teens, and adults who are dealing with loss.
“When you find someone who cares about how you feel, it is a relief,” says Kevin Fenwick, who participated in the organization’s 10-week Rays of HOPE program with members of his family, including his grandchildren. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, but if I had to tell someone, I would definitely tell them about Roberta’s House.”
Mr. Fenwick is one of the some 600 area residents who each year come to Roberta’s House, whose mission is to provide a safe place and a host of resources for those in the community as they heal following the loss of loved ones.
At the heart of the compassion emanating from Roberta’s House is Annette March-Grier. She cofounded the nonprofit in 2008 after already being involved in bereavement care for about a quarter century. With Roberta’s House, she is committed to helping the people of the Baltimore area through some of their darkest chapters.
“When they come through the door, initially they are angry,” says Ms. March-
Grier, who is also president of the organization. “After the second or third visit, it is just a total change of spirit.”
“They realize they are not alone in going through this,” she points out.
Last year, Baltimore endured 344 homicides, according to The Baltimore Sun – a sharp increase from 2014 that attracted national concern. That tally includes Freddie Gray, who sustained injuries while in police custody in April 2015. This year, 84 homicides occurred in the city through April 30, in comparison with 74 for the same period last year, the Baltimore Police Department reports.
“I believe much of the violence that is happening in Baltimore is the result of unresolved grief and loss,” March-Grier says in a soft, compassionate cadence. “When you get to a point where we have peaked with so much frustration and despair, it turns to anger.... Human beings can only take but so much.”
Free to the community
Roberta’s House stands ready to bring comfort. It provides a range of free, confidential services to the community, with support groups for adults and age-appropriate activities for children, such as journaling and crafts, that can help them express their feelings. The programs are run by licensed professionals and more than 300 volunteers whom March-Grier has personally trained.
There is also a place for mothers who have lost a baby through a miscarriage or stillbirth, as well as a summer camp for children who have experienced the death of someone close to them. Yet another offering is a peer support group for high-risk teens with a history of both loss and criminal offenses.
These days, however, much of the focus at Roberta’s House is on helping the family members of homicide victims – recognizing their individual needs and connecting them with available services.
Advocates are ready to assist families with everything from identifying their loved one to navigating the judicial system and even addressing the news media. In addition, they can notify schools and employers about what has happened and file requests to retrieve the victim’s property.
“We find that [people] are very reluctant to reach out for help,” notes March-Grier, who has also worked as a registered nurse. “They have been violated, so they are also very skeptical of who they let into their space.” Last year alone, Roberta’s House advocates contacted as many as 600 people to offer help, she adds.
March-Grier also notes that those living in an urban environment may encounter more challenges – including “violent deaths [and] accidental deaths” – than if they lived elsewhere.
This means, she says, that “when they come through our doors today, it is usually not because of one death.”
As a former state’s attorney for Baltimore City, Patricia Jessamy is also well versed in such challenges. In her more than 15 years in that office, she saw firsthand the need for support among family members of homicide victims. And she saw children struggling not only following a homicide, but also after the loss of a family member to drugs, illness, or incarceration.
“People need to learn how to cope with grief, and that is what Roberta’s House does,” says Ms. Jessamy, who is chair of the nonprofit’s board of directors.
She says she has never met someone as dedicated as March-Grier, and praises the effect March-Grier has had across Baltimore.
“I consider Roberta’s House to really be Annette’s gift to Baltimore City,” she says. “It is a wonderfully caring place that is making a difference in the lives of thousands of people.”
March-Grier was named one of the top 10 CNN Heroes of 2014. She has also received numerous awards for her community involvement and efforts to help youths, among other things.
No stranger to grief
She is no stranger to grief because she grew up immersed in her family’s business – a row-house funeral parlor, above which they lived.
“Our home was sort of like a counseling center in so many ways,” she recalls. She remembers “the crying and the weeping” – yet she also remembers listening “to [her] mother console them.”
That family business, March Funeral Homes, was founded in 1957 and would grow to become one of the largest African-American, family owned and operated funeral homes in the United States. Roberta’s House is largely an extension of an existing bereavement care program of the March family, and its name comes from the family’s matriarch – March-Grier’s mother, Julia Roberta March.
At present, March-Grier is raising funds for a new support center on the block once occupied by the March family’s original funeral home. The space would allow for more individualized services and additional support group offerings.
Among the people whose lives Roberta’s House has touched is Makeba Lawrence, who moved from New York City’s Harlem neighborhood to Baltimore last October.
Ms. Lawrence has been through trials. She says she lost her father to drugs at the age of 6, her mother to murder at 12, and her grandmother at 19. And she lost her foster parents 15 days apart in 2001, followed by her brother to homicide.
Roberta’s House, Lawrence says, has helped her deal with these losses. She quickly “fell in love” with the organization and now regularly recommends it to others.
In fact, she paused during an interview with this reporter at Roberta’s House to tell March-Grier of her plans to sign up for the next volunteer training program. Her hope is to help others by sharing her own story of tribulation – and healing.
How to take action
Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups helping children:
Asia America Initiative builds peace, social justice, and economic development in impoverished communities beset by conflict. Take action: Keep 500 children away from terrorist control through education and the arts.
Mayan Families provides opportunities and assistance to indigenous and impoverished people in Guatemala. Take action: Build a community center in San Andrés Semetabaj, Guatemala.