San Jose Based Nonprofit Helps Guide and Counsel Families of Homicide Victims
On February 13, 2013, 17-year old San Jose High School student Anthony Santa Cruz Sr. was on his way to a convenience store to grab some chips before eventually going to football practice.
Instead he ended up staggering home. When he arrived, he collapsed, succumbing to a knife injury sustained after being involved in an altercation with two unknown individuals. He never made it to practice.
It was San Jose’s 5th homicide of the year, and to this day his case remains unsolved.
After the events that rattled Anthony’s family and community, his mother, Elsa Lopez, did more than grieve for her youngest son. She began to ask questions about her son’s death. Among the ‘who’ and ‘why’, there was a personally pressing question, when would this dark time have closure.
“A lot of news and media started saying ‘It’s gang related’ and started painting a picture of my son, and for me that was not fair, it was not true. My son was a father, he left behind a 3-year-old little boy, Anthony was a good son. I didn’t see him like the media was picturing him so I we fought for them to take it out of the media, they did, finding out from Homicide, that it wasn’t gang related.”
After a lot of lost leads and uncertain theories, Lopez pushed herself to follow up on Anthony’s case with all her efforts.
“I decided that, you might have silenced my son, but you did not silence me. And I became his voice,” says Lopez.
She and her partner, Charles Najar, began the healing process through tireless pursuit of justice, and along the way, began aiding others in similar situations.
This led to the creation of their nonprofit, From the Streets to the Grave “A Mother’s Voice” (FSTG), which takes the name from the outcome of many of the fatalities the organization deals with, street crimes and in general violence on the street.
Lopez says the name came from the fate of Anthony. “It’s all street violence that happens. Again, my son was just walking down the street and his life ended, and the next day I’m calling the cemeteries, the morgue.”
In their 4th year, the organization provides grief counseling and overarching services that entail all forms of support to families who lose someone to gang and street violence.
Both Najar and Lopez have years of experience in the medical and counseling fields. Najar, now retired, has 22 years of mental health counseling work under his belt, mostly working with youth. Lopez continues to work a day job, at Gardner Mental Health.
From contacting funeral homes, having family counseling sessions and workshops to arranging community vigils, the organization’s goal is to make the death of a family member as comforting as possible by handling the details and providing services which are necessary during the loss of a loved one. Equally important is equipping the network of people related to a victim of homicide with the knowledge to endure and understand the court systems and police investigation process.
The First Case
Najar says the first-hand experience of uncertainty and grief is what helped spur the idea of helping other’s in this state. Anthony’s loss was in a way the first case for the creation of FSTG. Their own experience would ultimately guide them to go beyond their own grief.
“One of the things that we experienced was that people were coming, relatives, friends, city workers, non-profits, the Chief of Police at the time, Chief Esquivel, we appreciated the visits. They filled up this little place to try to support a grieving mom, they shared their condolences, but, they had to move on. We then were left with the questions, ‘what do we do? What happens now?’”
The big question for Lopez and Najar was, where they would go from this incident.
“It’s difficult to talk about. All of the sudden people are gone and that’s understandable. We realized what happens to the parents who lose a loved one in this type of situation, or any type of situation for that matter? DUI, an accident, so on.”
It was the uncertainly of Anthony’s case that propelled the couple to go out and find answers, and at the same time find that they were able to help others in more and more ways.
What Gets Done
After four years, FSTG has created a process that works to deliver efficient and humanizing advocacy for families of victims.
The process usually works as follows: Lopez and Najar hear of a homicide through their networks, or social media. They follow up after 24 hours with the family of the victim to make first contact and begin the process which provides multiple services, depending on the family. The services also extend to the community, with vigils, and extended family and friend counseling.
Najar breaks down the initial point of contact for FSTG. “[We] get to the family to provide immediate grief and stress management services. We’re faith based but we are not locked into any particular religion, some families don’t necessarily want that. What we’re here to do is try to help [through] these first few hours, first few days. Listen more than anything, then connect them to services.”
Lopez’s first and foremost does her work for the community. “For me my mission was to help the families. I started noticing after my son’s passing, there were many families in our community being affected. It’s [in] our community that our children are at risk.”
Her own experience formed the foundation of what FSTG would become, both that knowledge before and after the death of Anthony. As a child, she and her sister had to translate for her mother, a native of Mexico, in many aspects of daily life.
“My mom [only] spoke Spanish so we would be her translators. So, I’ve learned and, developed that skill. A lot of mother’s that we’ve worked with don’t speak English. So, they wouldn’t know to call the coroners, they wouldn’t know to call the hospitals. This is new to them, during the shock that their child was killed.”
Trust is a large component of the programs that FSTG offers. “A lot of mothers, especially this last year with the immigration laws, they don’t want to call detectives. They don’t want to let officers in their house, they don’t want to let anyone in, so they call me,” says Lopez.
She will occasionally go with mothers to court and speak on their behalf, and sees the trust component as a crucial step in what direction to help a family.
“For me it was important to go into their house, meet with the mom, meet with the father, let the father get to know me. It was important to build a trusting, caring relationship with the parents in order for them to allow me to go into their home.”
One of the most important aspects of the organization is to advocate and teach. Lopez has learned through her own efforts and experience to be the voice of the lost family member, and teaches this to any parent she interacts with.
“No one has the right to take anyone’s life but you as parents have the right to find out, where they’re at, what happened to them, who did this to them, and you have the right to go to court and speak up for your kids, it doesn’t matter what situation you’re in, those are your children. That’s my most important thing, to teach them to stand up for their children to continue to be their voice.”
A large part of their work with FSTG involves connecting with various members of the victims’ lives. These connections include chats, serious counseling and getting in touch with various services outside of FSTG.
There is a ‘Homies Group’ within their organization that Najar says is specifically for the network of friends of victims, a lot of times they are gang members or connected with that lifestyle.
“We offer that service because we understand that the focus is on the parents, and the immediate family. So, then what happens to those 50 – 100 guys standing out there at the perimeter of the candle lite vigil? The ones drinking, smoking weed, honoring their friend and honoring the family, themselves grieving for their friend? Who works with them, where do they go? Where are they two weeks from now?” We offer counseling in Grief and stress management and connect them with community agencies such as New Hope for Youth, Firehouse and other non-profit agencies that can direct them to positive programs.
Najar adds that in his experience, in days and weeks out when the memorial gatherings cease and people go onto their version of normalcy, that dark thoughts manifest and drug and alcohol use intensifies. This is also where the friends begin to get antsy about looking for culpability for a friends’ murder in the streets. That is why we cannot ignore them, it’s time for our community to identify the fact that they are “hurting,” and anger that may lead to retaliation is only an action away.”
The FSTG board members are all trained in grief counseling and stress management, and besides its Board, includes over 25 volunteers with background in Mental Health, Drug and Alcohol and gang experience. As Najar says, the groups give friends and acquaintances a safe and trusted space and “opportunity to get that stuff out, to process some of that grief.”
Lopez runs a group for parents in East Side San Jose every other Thursday called “Un día a la vez”, (One day at a time). The majority of the attendees are women, and Lopez says that it’s unfortunate that the death of a child, a loved one, brings them together, but, it is helpful, the group provides them an opportunity for them to come together, share their loss and to support one another.
“It’s a group that allows them to process what’s going on in their lives and share what’s going on, and to realize they’re not alone. [I] do it in Spanish and English,” says Lopez.
Lopez says our agency focuses on grief counseling and stress management, not only for the short time, but, we provide these services for their journey through the path of Grief, we see their loved ones as people, not statistics or blurbs.
“We don’t think about the political stuff, what the news media says or the community says, we see them as our children, and that’s very important in our group. We sit as mother’s United, not as colors Divided.”
Najar adds that in the near future Anthony’s older sister will be starting a group for sister’s that will be allowing her to gather and talk with the sister’s and female cousins of victims. “Losing her youngest brother, she feels like she’s at a point now where she could sit with girls and talk about the loss of their brother[s] or their cousins etc.”
Another aspect that’s been crucial to the networking and support systems in these cases is the community marches against violence and vigils. To date, since the first vigil for Anthony in 2013, FSTG has organized over 80 vigils per year. These are held all across San Jose and routinely get up into the 100’s of attendees.
There is a large yearly vigil which takes place at San Jose’s City Hall. Members of City government are present or invited, and it is the organization’s largest gathering of the year. Their fourth vigil will be held this Saturday November 11th at City Hall.
Najar says that reaching out to gang members and those affiliated helps ease tensions after homicides. In some instances, they reach out to local nonprofits to provide additional support and services for those gathered at the vigils as well.
“We start involving the friends, to let them know they are part of the family. It makes them realize that the retaliation that’s in their head, it gives them a couple days to think about it. That’s what our purpose is. To take that retaliation, try to bury it out of their minds, and let them know that right now that’s not important, the most important thing is to bury your friend.”
Lopez adds that during vigils there is a lot of people and a lot of emotions running. “Especially when it’s a well-known gang, you know there’s going be hot heads out there so we will call New Hope for Youth Intervention, Firehouse and, the City of San Jose’s Outreach workers. They start connecting with them, right there and then at the candlelight. We need and use the nonprofits to come out who do outreach for these young men and women.”
Being mediators to the community and the city helps build the network that allows their work to continue and be as seamless as can be in areas that continue to have homicide and gang related incidents.
Najar says, “We’ve had that experience. It’s difficult to measure but we see it on the street, we’re well connected to the street. We grew up in San Jose.”
Future of FSTG
Lopez and Najar ask a very sobering question. Had they been in a situation where Anthony’s murder was resolved quickly, would they have still had the idea to form FSTG?
“We’ve gotten tips, random calls with bad information. For the first couple years we were thinking, ‘this might be it’ and it’s not happening,” says Najar.
He says that Lopez was the first one to come to the realization that if they had gotten the closure of Anthony’s murder being solved, they don’t know whether they would have been doing what they do now.
“What happens to all these families that we work with? God is holding this thing open, regardless of what happens. That’s what the goal is, to continue.”
Lopez, the original mother behind “A Mother’s Voice”, says she will not stop what she set out to do.
“I will continue to help families, I will continue to work in the community and be the voice for my son, be the voice for other mothers that don’t know what to do, don’t know how to speak up. My goal is to motivate those mothers.”
More information about From the Streets to the Grave “A Mother’s Voice” is available at fstgamothersvoice.org.