The loss of a loved one can be a harrowing experience for anyone, but especially for a young child. Kim Anderson would know: Six years ago, her brother, Marcus Anderson, was shot dead by a stranger in east San Antonio. In the days and months that followed, she watched his daughter, MaKayla Anderson, struggle to cope. MaKayla often felt paralyzed by intense anger or fear. She could not talk about her father, because the topic was too painful. For years, MaKayla refused to allow even a photo of him in her bedroom.
“I knew he died, but it was like I couldn’t understand he wasn’t coming back,” said MaKayla, who turned 16 this year, wiping away tears. It is still painful for MaKayla to speak about her father, though this year she decided to allow his picture in her room. It’s a photo of the two of them, taken at a Chuck E. Cheese two years before Marcus’s death. It is placed on top of a small drawer that MaKayla uses to memorialize her father.
“Children don’t understand how to process this and cope with it in a healthy manner,” Kim said. San Antonio offers bereavement counseling to the families of crime victims, but Kim said that many do not know the service exists. Other times, she says, they don’t find counselors with whom they can relate.
Three years ago, Kim came up with the idea for a nonprofit to bridge these gaps and to honor her brother’s legacy. Gifts of Love From Above, or GOLFA, was founded in 2015 to support children survivors of gun violence. It has since helped 18 kids in the San Antonio area, which experienced 151 homicides in 2016, and has seen at least 100 gun deaths this year, according to the nonprofit website Gun Violence Archive. GOLFA’s first act was a toy drive to deliver Christmas presents to children who’d lost parents to gun violence.
Kim focused on serving low-income families in east San Antonio, which has among the highest levels of homicides in the city. GOLFA’s work has expanded to offer grants to provide emotional support at memorials, to pair families with victims’ advocates, and to help cover the costs of unexpected funerals. (The median cost of a funeral in 2016 was about $7,360, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.)
One recipient of GOLFA’s aid was the Natividad family. In July 2016, Margarita Natividad was fatally shot while trying to protect her friend from a gunman. She left behind six children, who range in age from 2 to 10. They spend school nights at their paternal grandmother’s house, where they sleep on the floor because of a lack of beds. On weekends, they stay with Margarita’s mother, Petra. GOLFA awarded the Navidad family $600 to help pay for Margarita’s funeral.
Last year, after the Natividad children submitted their Christmas gift wish list, the nonprofit donated one present to each child. Syrus Natividad, 9, said his grandmother had explained to them that they would not be getting many Christmas gifts last year, as she was still struggling to cover her burgeoning expenses.
“I thought I had nothing, but I got a heavy present, and it was a rectangle and it ended up being a laptop,” said Syrus, recalling the joy he felt at opening his gift from GOLFA. Petra, the children’s grandmother, said the support from GOLFA “has truly been the greatest form of therapy for me during the holiday season.”
This year, the toy drive got a boost from the San Antonio chapter of Moms Demand Action, a group dedicated to preventing gun violence. In honor of the lives lost during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut 2012, members sponsored GOLFA’s toy drive. They donated 26 gifts, including bicycles, Barbie dream houses, and play kitchens.
In addition to private donations, GOLFA also raises money by hosting an annual gala. In 2016, the organization held its first event, honoring lost loved ones. Funds raised at the reception allowed GOLFA to give an additional $2,500 worth of Christmas toys and funeral grants.
Kim hopes that in the years to come, GOLFA can host a summer camp where children can express their grief through art and music. She also dreams of creating a physical space for GOLFA with its own licensed counselors. To reach these ambitious goals, she plans to continue to host fundraising galas and apply for grants.
As for MaKayla, she is working up the courage to get more involved with GOLFA. Though she did not benefit from its services, her pain was the impetus for its existence. In 2016, she skipped the gala because it was too painful a reminder of her own heartbreak. This year, for the first time, she attended the event, a semiformal dinner and silent auction held at the local Hilton hotel. MaKayla braced herself to speak with a young child who had lost a parent to gun violence, though he, too, wound up avoiding the gala for the same reason she had the previous year. MaKayla knows she is uniquely positioned to understand the pain of young kids who are struggling with the loss of a parent, and she hopes to speak with some of them next year.
“I know I’m not the only kid out there who has lost their mother or father to gun violence,” MaKayla said. “We all have the same pain and my aunty is helping them.”