The holiday season is typically a joyous time when families come together and parents reunite with grown children away at college or living on their own.
But for Brenda Howerton, that's what makes this time of year so painful. For seven years, the Durham resident has struggled through the season without her oldest son, Charles, who was shot dead while attending a party near his college campus in Hampton, Va., in 1993. For six years, she has endured the season without her youngest son, Daryl, who was also shot dead not far from his college campus in Greensboro in 1994.
"It is a very difficult time of year for people like myself," says Howerton, a divorcee with two surviving children. "My heart aches not just for my family, but for all of the other families who have lost loved ones to gun violence."
Howerton acts on those feelings. The independent diversity consultant has spent a substantial portion of her non-working hours organizing, lobbying and speaking out for these victims, and against the guns that have shattered their lives. As co-coordinator of the Durham chapter of the national support group Parents of Murdered Children, and as chair of the Victim's Resources arm of the North Carolina Million Mom March committee, Howerton has pushed for safer gun laws, comforted grieving families and touted the importance of victims having access to help.
"Gun trauma is the worst trauma that a family can go through," she says, noting that it is "not something you can get through by yourself. Families need assistance."
Both of her organizations, which are closely affiliated, provide access to counselors and peer support groups able to service their increasing member bases, as well as anyone in need of help. "We're trying to turn victims into productive citizens again," explains Howerton. "We're trying to make them whole."
"She has worked with me and has been very supportive in the group," says Gertrude Cheek. She met Howerton at a Parents of Murdered Children meeting in 1993, after Cheek's 40-year-old son was shot to death in Durham. "Whenever anyone in the group got real upset, she would always say things to make us feel better."
Howerton would likely appreciate such comments. But because of what she's been through--and the ongoing pain she endures as a result--she'd give anything to erase the tragic experiences that have made her into such an effective advocate.
"I don't know what it's like to go to Hell," says Howerton in a cracking voice. "But I think I've been there."
Howerton's hellish chain of events began on Jan. 13, 1993 when she was jolted from her sleep by a 5 a.m. phone call from Virginia. The caller identified himself as a doctor from a hospital in Norfolk and informed her that Charles, a 26-year-old engineering and math major at Hampton University, desperately needed surgery for a bullet wound to the back. "The first thing I told myself was that he would be OK," recalls Howerton, noting that her mind was "unable to wrap around" the notion of her son dying.
Hours before, the college senior had sponsored an off-campus party at a local hotel celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. During the party, Charles tried to intervene in a confrontation between a college student and Victor Alvelais, a 20-year-old Navy airman. Charles forced the airman to leave the party and the enraged Alvelais went back to his car, got a gun and chased Charles through the crowded party before pumping a bullet into his back.
Howerton arrived at the hospital within hours of the early morning call. After surgery was completed, she watched in horror as her son, incapable of breathing on his own, was placed on life support. "He never regained consciousness," she says.
"I remember driving to Norfolk to get to the hospital," remembers Scott Hines, a close family friend. But by the time Hines arrived, Charles had already expired.
Though consumed by pain, Howerton refused to take her son's death sitting down. Within a year's time, while simultaneously involved with the court case that ultimately saw her son's killer receive 20 years to life in prison, she became an outspoken crusader for gun control and for the rights of victims. Howerton joined the board of the North Carolina Victim's Assistance Network, a group that lobbies the legislature on behalf of victim's rights. She quickly helped organize an area chapter of Parents of Murdered Children after noticing the lack of such support groups locally. She maintained a number of media engagements on related issues, and even met with the governor.
Howerton readily admits that, after her son's murder, these advocacy efforts "kept me from losing my mind. Somehow I got through on God's grace, not mine."
Unfortunately, she was soon forced to rely on grace once more. On Sept. 8, 1994, a year and a half after Charles' death, Howerton attended a press conference in Raleigh where she spoke out against gun violence. Minutes after its conclusion, Daryl--who was taking a semester off from North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro to sort out some problems stemming from his brother's death--was shot dead by Greensboro police.
"I had just returned home from the conference when two police officers came to my door and informed me," says Howerton, who at the time "didn't believe" what they were telling her. According to police and witness reports, 20-year-old Daryl entered a neighborhood barber shop, muttered something unintelligible and left. Minutes later, he returned to the shop naked, brandishing a knife. Two police officers were quickly summoned to the scene where they ordered the muttering Daryl to drop his weapon. He refused, advanced toward the cops and was struck with three bullets in the torso. Daryl was taken to a nearby hospital where he died.
No one, including Howerton, had recognized the depth of Daryl's grief over losing his brother, although he had grown increasingly quiet since Charles' death. "If there were any clues, there were none I could recognize," she says softly. "Unfortunately, I am not a mental health expert. And at the time, I was trying my best to maintain my own sanity."
Prior to his brother's death, Scott Hines remembers Daryl as a "bright, energetic kid who loved to rap and sing." But he also remembers him as a very responsible young man who worked hard at his after-school fast-food job and always made it to work on time.
"Daryl was very, very close to his oldest brother," Howerton recalls fondly. Since their father was seldom around, and there were seven years separating the two, Charles "became a father figure to Daryl. He looked up to him."
Hines points out that this close-knit relationship didn't stop there. "Her kids adored her," he says of the boys' love for their mother. "And she lived for her kids. She raised them and put them through school on her own."
"Their love for me was unconditional," says Howerton. "Whenever I was out front doing things, they were always in the front row smiling proudly. I miss that dearly."
Though her loss of two sons is the type of pain "you never get over"--and though Charles and Daryl are no longer seated in the front row--Howerton is still out front. This week, she is being sworn in as the new soil and water conservation supervisor for the city of Durham. It is likely the start of a promising political career, given her proven ability to champion a cause through organizing, advocating and speaking out.
But regardless of how successful she may or may not be at her new position, she'll continue to use her own personal tragedy as fuel in fighting for and supporting others whose loved ones get caught on the open end of a gun barrel. And ironically, her journey to hell and back has brought her a clarity of purpose that seems to epitomize the spirit of the holiday season.
"I truly believe that, with what's left of this human being, I've got to use what I've learned to help others."
For more info on the N.C. Million Mom March committee, call 419-1458. For Parents of Murdered Children, call 572-0175. Correspondence and donations can be forwarded to Million Mom March (Victim's Resources), P.O. Box 14353, Research Triangle Park, 27707.