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Watts Healing Garden Helps Gun Violence Survivors Grieve The Loss Of Their Loved Ones

A medium-skinned man with a long sleeved blue T shirt, wearing sunglasses and a small manbun, is using a yellow handled shovel to dig a hole for a young tree. Next to him is a young child wearing a yellow T shirt and khaki pants, and a woman with long hair wearing a striped shirt over green pants. Both are also holding shovels
Volunteers adding greenery to the former junkyard
(Andrew Dubbins for LAist)
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Phillip Lester drove his shovel into the earth, smiling as at last he pierced beneath the dry, hard dirt into dark brown fertile soil. “This whole lot used to be a junkyard,” said Lester.

Beside him stood the sycamore tree he was in the process of planting, its pencil-thin trunk looking delicate compared to tall, broad-shouldered Lester.

A man with dark-tone skin and dreadlocks wears a blue T-shirt which reads The Reverence Project. He's standing in a yard with a small stucco house next to him, with a brightly painted door and red stairs.
Phillip Lester is a gang-intervention specialist with The Reverence Project.
(Andrew Dubbins for LAist)

Lester, who goes by “Rock,” is a gang-intervention specialist with The Reverence Project, a non-profit in Watts that provides services and support to survivors of crime. Its latest initiative is the Survivor’s Healing Garden, a small plot of native California trees and shrubs designed to provide a place of gathering and reflection for survivors of crime and violence in Watts. The Reverence Project hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony for the garden on January 21.

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Healing From PTSD

At a planting event last fall, Oya Sherrills stood in the shade of a tall eucalyptus tree and spoke about the calming effect of nature.

“A lot of the folks we engage with have PTSD because they are survivors of gun violence and gang violence,” said Sherrills, who leads the garden. “So exposing them to spaces where they have nature all around them nurtures the spirit and decreases PTSD symptoms.”

Sherrills said that for years, Reverence Project staff had to drive survivors 30 minutes to an hour out of Watts to reach green spaces, such as Kenneth Hahn Park or the rose garden adjacent to the Natural History Museum.

A lone plant sits in a desolate lot. Behind it is a brown fence; behind that are rusting shipping containers, daubed with graffiti
Rusted shipping containers sit next to the garden
(Andrew Dubbins for LAist)

According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Watts has just 0.65 parks per 1,000 residents, a dearth exacerbated by the neighborhood’s “hard” built asphalt environment, which contains minimal street side greenery.

The Vision

The vision for the “Survivor’s Healing Garden” began with Oya’s father, Aqeela Sherrills, a community activist who helped negotiate the historic peace treaty in 1992 between the Bloods and Crips in Watts. Twelve years later, his 18-year-old son Terrell, a theater arts student, was shot and killed during a visit home from college.

A woman with dark-toned skin woman wearing a dark pink T shirt and pants, with a pink headband and necklace, talks and smiles into a microphone. She stands next to a tree.
Oya Sherrills' father had the original inspiration for the garden
(Andrew Dubbins for LAist)
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“It was the same kind of senseless violence that my dad had been working to stop,” Sherrills recalled.

Her grieving father embarked on a pilgrimage to sacred sites around the world. Through his travel, he came to a realization that the only way to achieve peace is for people to recognize the divinity in one another, and to treat every person with reverence accordingly.

It was the same kind of senseless violence that my dad had been working to stop.
— Oya Sherrills, on her 18-year-old brother's murder

Returning home to Watts, Aqeela launched The Reverence Project to provide support, resources, and treatment for survivors of crime in urban neighborhoods plagued by violence, like Watts. The non-profit tailors its services to each survivor, offering peer counseling, meditation, music mentorship, writing workshops, massage therapy, aromatherapy, and other natural, holistic treatments.

The Survivor’s Healing Garden sits on a 3,150 square foot plot behind the organization's office, a stucco one-story with temple-like wooden shutters and a Buddhist mural on its eastern wall. Sandwiched between two train tracks and adjacent to four housing projects, the lot was overflowing with garbage and rusty vehicles when The Reverence Project took over.

With funding support from the USGBC of Los Angeles, the non-profit cleared the trash and installed a rain garden to capture and clean stormwater.

They planted palo verde trees, with lime green trunks and yellow blooms, as well as many native plants including yarrow, red Buckwheat and California fuchsia.

A man with dark-tone skin and dreadlocks, wearing a black T shirt and grey shorts, holds a red shovel as he digs a hole. Next to him, a woman wearing a beige floppy hat, white shirt and jeans is also using a red shovel to dig
Phillip Lester, who leads healing circles to help survivors with their grief
(Andrew Dubbins for LAist)

Rehabbing Survivors

Alongside rehabbing the land, The Reverence Project continues its primary mission at the site: rehabbing survivors of crime. Lester leads healing circles where survivors gather to support one another, talk about community issues, brainstorm solutions, and share tools for healing.

“It's a space where you get some type of peace and tranquility; where you can just sit and breathe and relax,” said Lester. He teaches breathing techniques to help reduce and release stress, and moderates the group discussions. “We ask folks to dig deep to speak on their traumas,” he said.

Lester said the discussions have been integral to his own personal healing. In 1993, his uncle was murdered in a gang shooting, just 10 minutes away from the garden in Lester’s grandmother’s front yard. Lester said loss is a common theme in the healing circles, and in Watts in general: “loss of love ones to gang violence, drug addictions, tragedies…loss at the hands of law enforcement.”

A woman with dark-tone skin wears a sleeveless blue tie-dyed dress sits in a chair, looking at the camera. She's sitting among dozens of empty folding chairs in the garden
Latanya Hull, a Watts native and community activist, lost her son, Brian to a hit and run car crash
(Andrew Dubbins/LAist)

Another Form Of Healing

Latanya Hull, a community activist from Watts, sat on a foldout chair in the garden, her red glasses lifted on her head and a silver locket around her neck.

“Nature is something I've liked my whole life,” said Hull, looking out over the peaceful garden. She keeps plants at her home and taught her son, Brian, at a young age how to tend them. He was killed in a hit-and-run, at just 28-years-old. “Since my son passed away,” she said, “this [garden] is another form of healing for me.”

Seated nearby, in a crisp button-down shirt and pleated blue jeans, Anton Rankin reflected on his son who was murdered 2 1/2 years ago, shot in the back at 21-years-old.

“They haven't found the person yet because most of the time [the police] feel it’s another young Black man that's in the streets,” said Rankin, who speaks in a slow, world-weary cadence. Rankin’s son left behind a 3-year-old boy. “He wants to know where his dad is,” said Rankin. “What can we tell him?”

A man with dark-tone skin with very short black hair and a mustache, is looking into the camera. He's wearing a red and white checkered shirt, and is standing next to a tree.
Anton Rankin, whose 21-year-old son was murdered 2 1/2 years ago.
(Andrew Dubbins for LAist)

Finding Support In Community

Rankin credits The Reverence Project and its healing circles with lifting him out of a severe depression.

“Instead of having nothing," he said, "you have five or ten people that you can relate to; that you can call on.”

Each session, Rankin learns techniques that he takes home to his family to help with their grieving.

“Some days are rougher than others,” he said.

Healing takes time, no different than planting a garden. “It’s going to have to be tilled,” said Lester. “It's going to have to be tended to. It's going to take work.” Lester feels a deep pride in this work, smiling when he told me: “We’re seeing the trees produce life right here in Watts.”

The garden and its upkeep, in Lester’s eyes, are showing survivors of crime that the community cares about them and will never forget the victims. Lester encourages members of his healing circles to plant trees in memory of their lost loved ones. In doing so, he said, they feel responsible for the tree and develop a connection to it. “They come out here to spend time with their tree, to water it. To them, it's almost equivalent to spending time with their loved one.”

Lester plans a tree for his uncle, Sherrills for her brother, Hull and Rankin for their sons. Rankin may invite his son’s boy to help plant the tree, so the 3-year-old can watch it grow.

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