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“WE HAVE TO PUT THE MOURNING ASIDE AND GET THE WORK DONE” By Pam Adams

Tammy Alexander
Sonia Herron

There’s no way to know, much less name, all of them. So much of their work is the invisible glue that holds community together when it feels like it’s breaking apart.

They are the ones who gather to cook the food, sell the dinners, take up the collections. They are the ones who raise the money for the home-going service when there’s no other way.

In an ideal world, every family would have the means for a proper, dignified, affordable burial when a loved one dies. In the world as it is, many can’t afford decent food, healthcare and housing, much less a funeral. So funeral fundraisers are a last resort.

“I think it happens more often than we like to think,” Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood says of funeral fundraisers.

James Gilkesson of Simons Mortuary says he’s seeing more families doing their own fundraising, either through crowdfunding sources or the age-old tradition of selling dinners.

“Sometimes, we have to put the mourning aside and get the work done,” says Tammy Alexander, who has cooked and sold dinners to offset expenses for a number of funerals.

The Martin Luther King Holiday Committee struggled to find a way to recognize and honor these efforts for the annual King Holiday commemoration January 18. The obvious choice, it seemed, should be the individuals who raised money to help pay the final expenses of four young women who died in a tragic car accident last September. But it became difficult to single out one person or one group when so many were involved.

“This touched the whole community,” Gilkesson says. In tragedy, the invisible glue that holds community together became visible.

Sonia “Monique” Herron did not know the young women. But when she saw a Facebook post suggesting a restaurant help raise money, she went to her brother, Elbert Nickerson Jr., owner of Jr.’s Chicken. “At that moment, I just really wanted to be part of giving back to those families,” he says. He turned over his restaurant to his sister for a soul food fundraiser.

Before Herron ever put pot to stove, while she shopping for food at the grocery store, strangers heard about why she was shopping and started donating right there in the check-out line. People were grabbing food out of the carts, saying, I’ll pay for this, I’ll pay for that. People were paying for food with their Link cards. “I’m telling you, it was amazing,” she says. “They came through for those babies.”

Amazing things were happening all over Peoria, including at Logan Park and at Manual Academy. People came together, sold food, jewelry, t-shirts, donated time and money in memory of the four young women, Jazzman Burns, 22, Qua’Nylan Thomas, 19, Tyesha Thomas, 18, and Diamond Williams, 18, all graduates of Manual.

Alexander knew all four. She volunteered at fundraisers at Jr.s Chicken and at Logan Park because as friends say, Tammy donates all day, every day, no matter who it is or what it is. Or, as Alexander told a local TV reporter, it’s about supporting grieving families.

“It’s love, it’s nothing but love. . .We don’t want them falling into no dark places. We want to pull them up and show them they have a community that’s behind them and loves them.”

The Martin Luther King Holiday Committee decided to dedicate an award to anyone who has raised money to bury a loved one. In ways large and small, they are the invisible glue that holds grieving families up in the midst of tragedy. But their invisibility may mask serious, rarely-discussed issues of affordability, exacerbated by a pandemic. (Some research shows African-American families are more likely to hold life insurance policies than the general population. And that’s in spite of the life insurance industry’s past history of redlining.)

The coroner’s office is responsible for disposing the remains of the deceased whose bodies go unclaimed. Harwood’s office also donates burial plots, in some instances, to families who cannot afford the expense of a traditional burial.

Like the other families, Margaret “Nicee” Williams is still mourning the death of her daughter, Diamond, in that fatal car accident. She has helped other families raise money for funerals in the past. The community support she received in her time of need overwhelmed her. She tried to return the support by donating food and supplies to the other families for their fundraisers.

Knowing her history, others have asked her to help cook for fundraisers since her daughter passed. “I have to say, no, not now. I’m not ready,” she says.

Though she’s not ready, she sometimes thinks about how to help others who may not be able to afford the full cost of a funeral for their children. She’s not sure if or how it could happen, but it would be in memory of four young women who left the community with a powerful lesson of love and generosity in the midst of tragedy.

Pam Adams can be reached at padams281@gmail.com