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Turning pain into power: How a grieving mother transformed a neglected block near Detroit into a village of beauty and opportunity

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Every parent’s worst nightmare is losing their child. Shamayim Harris has lived through that nightmare – twice.

On September 23, 2007, her 2-year-old son, Jakobi Ra, was struck and killed in a hit-and-run in Highland Park, a suburb of Detroit.

“I literally thought that I wouldn’t be able to function or be alive or anything,” she recalled.

In 2021, she experienced that heart-wrenching loss again when her 23-year-old son, Chinyelu, was shot and killed while doing a neighborhood watch in his community.

As she faced her profound grief, she also discovered her strong determination to channel it into something good. For the last 15 years, her trauma has fueled her mission to transform her struggling, neglected community into a vibrant village.

“I needed to … change grief into glory, pain into power,” said Harris, who is known as Mama Shu. “I just tried to transform it into something bearable and something beautiful.”

In the early 1900s, Highland Park, Michigan, became famous as the home of the first Ford Motor Company factory, producing millions of Model T cars. But as the automotive industry left the area, the city suffered. Residents moved away, crime accelerated, schools shut down, storefronts were vacated.

“I was devastated about what I would see walking around Highland Park,” said Mama Shu, a longtime resident. “I wanted to live in a beautiful city. I wanted flowers. I wanted thriving businesses. I felt that that is what we deserved.”

A dream becomes reality

Mama Shu had dreams for what her city could become. She would often drive past one street in particular, Avalon Street, and envision it.

“I would look at this block like, ‘Wow, man, if we just clean up this block and do this and do that,” she said. “I saw crystal clear what it could look like.”

Six months after the death of Jakobi Ra, a house on the corner of Avalon Street went up for sale for $5,000. Mama Shu didn’t have the money for it, but she knew she had to have the house. She called the realtors right away.

“I said, ‘I’ll give y’all $3,000.’ And I didn’t have the $3,000 either,” she said. “I just had to make sure I got it.”

With her savings and borrowed money, Mama Shu bought the house. And then slowly she began purchasing other lots on Avalon Street.

“I initially started building the village with just any money that I could get,” she said. “Income tax refund checks, my work check, selling fish sandwiches for $5, getting donations.”

She drew up plans for what she envisioned, and for eight years, she and volunteers worked to clean up the block; some houses were torn down, others refurbished.

In 2016, Mama Shu created the Avalon Village, a nonprofit with the mission of revitalizing the street and creating a safe and nurturing space for the entire community. Today, she and her organization own 45 lots of land across three blocks.

The Homework House

The biggest project on the block to date has been fully refurbishing one of the abandoned houses into an after-school hub for children.

During her 27 years working as an administrator in the Highland Park public schools, Harris saw firsthand the overcrowded classrooms and lack of resources. She wanted the Homework House to have everything the children were lacking, she said. The space now contains a library, computers, a 3D printer, a music studio, a kitchen, and full bathrooms with handicap accessibility.

“When children come to the Homework House, I want to make sure that they get all the attention and love that they deserve,” Mama Shu said. “It is meant to look like a home, to smell like a home, to be decorated like a home.”

Avalon Village also has a STEM Lab and basketball court, along with refurbished shipping containers that house the Goddess Marketplace, a store where women artisans and entrepreneurs can sell their products.

For lighting and safety on Avalon Street, Mama Shu installed five solar streetlights with wi-fi capabilities, making it the first relit block in Highland Park, she said, since many of the city’s streetlights were repossessed in 2011.

Growing the Avalon Village vision

Mama Shu’s reason for rehabilitating the street is never far from her mind. The memories of her sons are found in the park and garden spaces throughout Avalon Village.

“I want the village’s impact to be that of resilience and for the spirits of my boys to be recognized,” she said.

Her son Chinyelu helped in carrying out her vision to create this oasis.

“He was the one that everybody said that he was like me, as far as doing community stuff,” Mama Shu said. “I loved that about him, and I miss that about him. He was a good partner.”

There is so much more Mama Shu wants to do. She has plans to build a café, a greenhouse for farm-to-table cooking, a laundromat, and a wellness center. She also aims to build market-rate housing on the street.

“I would love to see all four blocks of Avalon look beautiful,” she said. “I would love for it to be infectious, and I would love for it to spread throughout the whole city. … The grief is energy to move forward. I think that I have enough energy to probably build the whole world.”

Want to get involved? Check out the Avalon Village website and see how to help.

To donate to Avalon Village via GoFundMe, click here

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