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SD Compassion Project Helps Grieving Families

Monique Palmer and Michael Taylor were murdered on December 6, 2008 as they were leaving a party north on San Jacinto Drive.
Monique Palmer and Michael Taylor were murdered on December 6, 2008 as they were leaving a party north on San Jacinto Drive.
SD Compassion Project Helps Grieving Families
Residents living in San Diego's inner city say the grief and anger over gang-related homicides never completely goes away. In fact, the families who've lost loved ones say they often suffer from ongoing post traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. The San Diego Compassion Project is helping families in the grieving process.

Residents living in San Diego's inner city say the grief and anger over gang-related homicides never completely goes away. In fact, the families who've lost loved ones say they often suffer from ongoing post traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. The San Diego Compassion Project is helping families in the grieving process.


San Diego Gang Stories

Maureen Cavanaugh: When a person is murdered, there are police, investigators, reporters, a whole host of people on the scene. It is a major tragic event. But, in the weeks and months after the homicide, those reporters and investigators fade from the scene, and the victim's family is often left alone to cope with the emotional and practical issues that accompany a violent death. Now a community-based group wants to step into that void. The San Diego Compassion Project is working to help families in the grieving process -- from providing counseling to making funeral arrangements.


Ana Tintocalis, KPBS reporter.

Tracey Swafford, mother of Monique Palmer.

Denise Saunders, mother of Micheal Taylor.

Tasha Williamson, board member of the San Diego Compassion Project.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and You're listening to These Days on KPBS. When a person is murdered, there are police, investigators, reporters, a whole host of people on the scene. It is a major, tragic event, but in the weeks and months after the homicide, those reporters and investigators fade from the scene, and the victim's family is often left alone to cope with the emotional and the practical issues that accompany a violent death. Now a new community based group wants to step into that void. The San Diego compassion project is working to help families in the grieving process, from providing counseling to making funeral arrangements. I'd like to welcome my guests. Ana Tintocalis is KPBS reporter, her on going series is call San Diego Gang Stories. Ana, good morning.

ANA TINTOCALIS: Good morning, thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tracey Swafford and Denise Saunders are working with the San Diego Compassion Project. And they have both lost a child to gang violence. We're gonna be speaking with them a little later in the show, but I want to welcome them to the show. TRACEY, good morning. Thank you for coming in. And Denise, good morning.

DENISE SAUNDERS: Thank you for welcoming.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Tasha Williamson is here. She's a board member of the San Diego Compassion Project. Tasha, good morning.

TASHA WILLIAMSON: Good morning, thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's start with you Ana, how many young people have been killed in San Diego due to gang violence?

ANA TINTOCALIS: Well, it's a long his as you can imagine. I guess the most recent San Diego police statistics say that gang rolled homicides are actually going down. So that is positive news, but there is a real gang threat, gang violence threat out there in all communities. We've been hearing about this in all communities, Encinitas, the south bay, it's a common experience. So while the gang related homicides are going down, there still is gang violence in the form of robberies, assaults, beat downs, there are still shootings, people are just not, you know, dying from those shootings. There's also a huge -- and I reported on this a couple of weeks ago -- this huge phenomenon now of gangs pimping and pandering young women. And there's also, you know, drug dealing, weapons smuggling. So you have to kind of see it all together. There were fewer homicides, fewer young people, and I can kind of name the names, the most recent was JoANA Vargas, she was 15 years old, a Madison high school student, she snuck out of her house and got gunned down at a park. Her parents thought she was sleeping at home of she was gunned down at a park handwriting out with her friends at night. The most notable dual homicides was of [CHECK AUDIO] they were going to a house party, gunned down that night. There was also Francisco Javier Nava, he was 24, he got stabbed to death after getting in an argument. He was trying to get away from the gang kind of lifestyle. Then we have HANAh Badorski, she was 15, and she was killed outside a friend's house in San Diego's Mountain View neighborhood. So those are the names attached to some of the most -- the more recent homicide this is we've seen in San Diego.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, of course Monique's and Michael's moms have been gracious enough to come into the studio and talk with us today, but the story of those two shootings of a real -- really conspired you to take on the story of gangs in San Diego, Ana.

ANA TINTOCALIS: Right, well, my expertise is education reporting so I do a lot of work in community schools, and Lincoln high school is one of the schools that I gravitate towards because there's just so many students going to that school in that community. And you know, I was doing my daily thing, talking to teachers, talking to parents, and this awful incident happened with Monique and Michael, again, Monique was 17 years old, and she was an honor student, she got accepted into cal state Los Angeles, she was part of a student group, but one of the things they were trying to get the message out there was about not falling into the gang lifestyle, avoiding that kind of violence. And she was an example of a young person who was beating the odds in moving herself forward, same thing with Michael tailor. He was a varsity football player. . He was only 15 and he was playing for the varsity football team. Rising athletic talent. Again, being able to rise above the odds and move forward, and these two young people were senselessly gunned down. They weren't gang affiliated, they were just young kids going out to a party, and they were gunned down by a carload of gang members. Of and that shook me to the core, but also shook so many community red debts to the core that I just thought, there are so many stories to tell, and so many complicated issues to tell, and not in just that community but across San Diego County. And that really did became a source of inspiration. And the fact is, it's not just an isolated incident in thelingon high school community. It's everywhere. And I think the goal of my reporting was to try to raise the awareness that this is a common collective experience in San Diego County.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Now I'm gonna be talking to the people about San Diego Compassion Project. But I want to get your take on this, Ana. Of what do you see as a reporter as the hardest part for families when it comes to the grieving process? When someone is tragically taken like this in an act of senseless violence, what do you see as some of the hardest things for the family to recover.

ANA TINTOCALIS: Well, obviously the grief of losing a loved one and the two mothers can share about that, but I think one of the things that I learned is that so many of these -- and it's just not gang related, it's just violence. But when it comes to gang related violence in the form of homicides and so forth, few people want to come forward and talk about it. People are afraid of gangs, they're afraid of snitching. Andy so a lot of these cases go unsolved. And even for the parents of Monique and Michael Taylor, this was a lot of not knowing who was to blame, and the police were able to identify a few people, those charges were dropped, and then someone else, so this is just a matter of not having closure, not having a solution, and in other cases just not having a person generally to blame. And that unresolved grief is maybe one of the hardest things loved ones have to go through. And I also heard some of the hardest people impacted are the siblings of a loved one who fell victim to violence. It's the siblings that are usually younger that have to live with this. And try to figure out life without their big brother or big sister. And so that's kind of what I found out through some of my reporting.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's Ana Tintocalis, KPBS reporter, her ongoing series is called San Diego Gang Stories. I want to reintroduce the two mothers whose children became the source of inspiration for your San Diego Gang Stories. And I want to introduce again, Denise Saunders and TRACEY SWAFFORD. I'm wondering, Denise, time must have seemed to stop when you got the news that Michael had been shot. Do you remember that day clearly or is it just sort of in flashes?

DENISE SAUNDERS: To me, just -- when I heard it, you know, I got -- you know, I was just, like, are you serious? You know, and everybody said, yeah, you got to get up and go, my nephew said, you got to get up and did to the hospital of I said go to the hospital for what? He said they just shot Michael and Monique. Of and that's it. No, you got to be kidding because he had just not too long ago left home. And I was just devastated. I didn't know what to do. I just lost my mind. Still lost, still gone. But eventually, if it wasn't for project safe way and compassion, and Tasha, you know, and everyone on there, Tony young, captain McGrail right now, and Point Loma, you know, for helping me through this.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Point Loma high school.

DENISE SAUNDERS: They really was there for Michael. And that's where he was going to school.


DENISE SAUNDERS: I mean, I don't know. I don't think I would be able here today right now to be speaking on it, you know? And it's a lot that I go through and I call Tasha and let her know I was having a bad day today.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to talk more about that. I want to talk to TRACEY for just a moment about -- you know, I said in the beginning when something like this happens, you're surrounded with people and reporters and police and so forth. But, like, the day after, and the day after that, you're alone with this. Tell us what that's like.

TRACEY SWAFFORD: It's just -- it's really hard to describe. I think the hardest part for me and my husband and my kids and my family was the phone call. I think that phone call was a parent's worst nightmare, and like I said, I was asleep, so by the time I got the phone call, it took me a while to wake up, and then once I woke up and actually got down there -- but it's hard. And it's hard for me, it's hard for my husband, which is Monique's step dad, and it's hard for my three little kids, I have three little kids left at the house. So I have three little kids just dealing with life on a daily basis.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, the murder of Monique and Michael happened three years ago. And Tasha William son, we can hear that this grief is still fresh, I mean, this is still breaking these two women's hearts. When San Diego Compassion Project hears that there's been an incident like this, that there's opinion a homicide, a tragic death, what do you do? What is the first thing that you do?

RIH2: Well, are we got the phone call. And then we go into a mode where we start calling, you know, other colleagues to see who we can mobilize to either go out to the crime scene, the hospital or the home of the family. And from that point on, we find out and we assess the family and who their needs are. And then from there we begin to find resources to help them. One of the families, lakeeka Mason, she was killed downtown, actually had a benefit in her honor and donated the funds to San Diego Compassion Project. And that's how we've actually been able to be a resource to these families and help families pay for various services, and part of funeral services and provide food for repass services after. And any other needs that they may have that we come together as a leadership team and decide, you know, in what way we can help that family.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And the thing that is sort of amazing is that there are -- there's no other agency that seems to sort of in step in. Of I mean, these needs are there, the people were hurting, there are practical and emotional needs there. But are there any other resources bodies San Diego Compassion Project?

RIH2: They have crisis intervention, San Diego PD, but they are the beginning. So they're there at the crime scene, at the hospital. If it happens in a home, they're there at a home. But they're there for the initial aftermath. And we're there as you can see, three years later. I'm going to the Courts, two years later, excuse me. Going to the Courts, going to, you know, if they need to go to the doctor, they need, you know, anything. We try and make sure we're there. If they need to call at 3 o'clock in the morning and just talk to somebody, you know, we get up and we're their ear. You know, we're there to help them. Because I don't know what it's like to go through, what they've gone through. But I can only imagine how difficult it is. Because you never truly heal. It's always -- it's a process, a healing process. You get to a point where it's not the first day.


RIH2: You know, it's not that initial shock. But each day, you know, it's a repeat. And they have to continuously get past that first day.


RIH2: Every time there's a court hearing for these families, you know, it's the first day all over again. You know, going through that court process I think has traumatized our San Diego compassion families. And I'm sure other families more so. Because they have been victimized again in MAUREEN CAVANAUGH process. And I mean as far as the interaction with both families. The DA's office is doing the best they can to communicate, and I think they've done a wonderful job in making sure that these families understand that court process. But the families of the suspects, you know, are angry because their children -- we lose everybody. And they're angry and they kind of lash out at the victim's family. And so here we have families that have to be escorted into, you know, court by investigators, armed investigators for their protection. You know, we have courts that in MAUREEN CAVANAUGH sessions you have to have more sheriffs there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah, and if nothing else, the people who have lost loved ones have to relive that --

RIH2: They have to relive it. They do.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That incident, that moment that all of this happened. Of Denise, how has the Compassion Project helped you? You talked about calling people, you know, in the night time, and having that resource there for you.

DENISE SAUNDERS: Ask has helped me tremendously, because I've been to where -- when I first [CHECK AUDIO] 'cause I got pictures all over, and I get up and look at him and everything, when I get into one of the modes where I just don't have a feeling to get up for that day, no energy, no nothing, I get up, I'll call has Tasha, and just letter know I'm having a bad day today. I just can't deal with it today. And I just need to talk, and she's there. They're there. Of and a lot of things I don't have, you know, and stuff like that, I can call them and ask them about it, and get resources, you know? I'm so glad we do have a program.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And TRACEY let me ask you the same question. How has this group, are this lady and her group, how has she helped?

TRACEY SWAFFORD: She's like guardian angels, she's mike lie guardian angel Monique. Project compassion was started behind my daughter and her son.


TRACEY SWAFFORD: So they were the first two victims and we were at a meeting Monday of course it was 32. 30 other kids just since Monique and Michael, and their anniversary is Monday, have died. So I get touched by that. And I call Tasha too, when certain people die, and certain incidents touch my heart certain ways, I call project compassion and ask them can they come help these families too? Because I feel maybe a little angel from Monique says help these families out, but like niecy says, when they need to go to court, they're there for me, when I need somebody to talk to, they're there for me. They got me into my spiritual side that I didn't know much about. They help me get through the grief process. It's an awesome program. (REPEAT LAST PHRASE).

ANA TINTOCALIS: And I wanted to add to that, in [CHECK AUDIO] and community members, it does -- it kind of blows your mind, when you talk to these folks, the number of funerals they have had to go through to bury young people. Or the number of stories, they've heard of young people getting shot by drive by or whatever, it's almost like part of their -- the their reality. And so when they talk about living life, this is what they -- they talk about the number of shootings or the number of young people who have died, and so many people including Tasha have said I'm just tired of burying young people. We just need to stop this. And one of the things that also the San Diego Compassion Project has been able to do is keep that theme in everyone's head, that this is something that we all have to focus on and arrange for candle light vigils and so forth.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's what I was gonna mention. A big part of your organization, San Diego Compassion Project, is an out reach to communities to keep this issue of violate, gang violence, all kinds of violence, really in everybody's mind, that this is happening is it's gotta be stopped. And I know that Denise is TRACEY have been a big part of those marches of Tasha, tell us a lot bit about that.

RIH2: Well, we -- when we started out, we did start out because of Monique and Michael. And you know, Lynn shop under wood and myself sat down one Christmas holiday and we talked about how these families were affected and how, you know, the support that we saw that was needed to help these families heal. And we also talked about what our vision was, and our vision was initially to help families, kids who were victims of homicides of since then, we've helped adults, we're a part of the organizing of the candle light vigil for officer Chris Wilson. So we've helped everybody. We don't think that -- we've come to an understanding that we're tired of everybody dying. And not just -- we hope that, you know, we're the after something happens. But there's so many needs for before something happens. And we would hope that, you know, people would step up as they have been, we have a lot of organizations out there that are stepping up to do things. But we're dealing with a lot of posttraumatic stress issues in our schools. And counseling is not a priority. I think just city wide. And it needs to be. Because until we start tealing with the before effects, these kids that have to hear sirens in their neighborhoods or hear gunshots or hear about violence throughout the city, we need to have some mechanism, you know, really in the schools, in the churches, something where they're getting this counseling that they need beforehand so we can learn how to deal with conflicts and deal with them nonviolently so we don't have these events of violence and homicides.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to have -- we're coming up on the top of the hour. And I want to get some closing remarks from TRACEY and Denise because you just mentioned, TRACEY, that you're coming up on an anniversary of the shooting death of your daughter, and Michael Taylor. And that means, obviously, that the past couple of holidays seasons have just been really awful for you. How prepared are you for this holiday? Are you gonna be enjoying yourself at all do you think?

TRACEY SWAFFORD: I'm not too sure about that. The anniversary's coming up on Monday and Sunday we're having a candle light vigil over there at 3 o'clock where they were killed. We talk about project compassion and what it's done for me and Denise. Project safe way on the corners, that was one of the projects that Monique and Michael worked on, Monique worked on. I'm gonna talk about the Point Loma and Lincoln high school scholarships. We just want the community to know that right now, it's -- holidays is always a good time for everybody, but you always have to deal with these problems that are after the holidays. And like Tasha said, the problems of the gang violence, and the stuff before our youth is not gonna change, it's not gonna go away. So far us as parents and in the communities, and anybody raising a child, so we just all need to come together.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Denise, are you gonna be able to get through these holidays.

DENISE SAUNDERS: Sure, I mean, by the sake of Tasha, Monique, Michael, all of them, just take that Mr. Last year and put it together this year and look forward for a new year. And you know, just wANA get out here and start asking for donations for project compassion, you know, so -- and Michael and Monique's memories and others, you know, that we can help the next family. So our anniversary is Sunday at 3 o'clock in San Jacinto and we are asking for donations to help with the program.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And we'll have that on our website so everybody knows when it is and where it is, and what they can do. I want thank you all so much. Thank you, TRACEY and Denise, thank you so much for speaking with us. I know it was difficult. Thank you.


TRACEY SWAFFORD: Thank you for allowing us to come out.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Tasha Williamson of San Diego Compassion Project, thank you.

RIH2: Thank you. Appreciate it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Ana Tintocalis as always, thanks a lot.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And if you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.