Camden mourns teenagers killed on Easter, decries the continuing violence

A community member writes a message on the back of her car to remember Sincere Howard and Shirleen Caban, who were killed on Sunday, April 21 at Von Nieda Park in Camden. A community rally was held to create safer environment for children on Thursday, April 25, 2019. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

A community member writes a message on the back of her car to remember Sincere Howard and Shirleen Caban, who were killed on Sunday, April 21 at Von Nieda Park in Camden. A community rally was held to create safer environment for children on Thursday, April 25, 2019. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Camden residents are mourning two teens killed in an early Easter Sunday triple shooting, as they also try to find a way to address the violence affecting their young people.

Community leaders and activists rallied Thursday evening at Von Nieda Park, the place where 17-year-old Sincere Howard and 19-year-old Shirleen Caban were slain.

A tree with balloons tied to its trunk and dozens of candles arranged at its base stood as the backdrop to the somber call to action, which drew more than 75 people, including many teens.

Leona Iverson came to the gathering after work wanting to support the parents of the slain teens. She said she knows the damage of gun violence all too well.

“My son got shot in front of me, so like I know what I went through when my son was shot five times, two different times,” Iverson said. “I can’t even imagine what these parents are going through.”

Her son, who is 22, was most recently shot last year. Iverson said the ordeal left her with post-traumatic stress disorder.

She said learning about what happened to Caban and Howard makes her frightened for her children.

“I’m scared like every morning,” she said. “I’m scared like, when I get a call, I’m thinking that someone is going to call me and say one of my kids  got shot or something happened to my daughters. It’s just sad like we live on the edge every day because we don’t know if we’re going to wake up and it’s going to be one of our family members.”

“I got really emotional,” said Logan Harden, who knows Howard’s father and wanted to show solidarity with the community at the gathering. “Because it’s recurrent, it happens all the time.”

Camden residents participate participate in the community rally held in Camden to create safer environment for children on Thursday, April 25, 2019. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

People who knew Howard remembered him for his love of basketball. Harden said the last time she and her 8-year-old son saw Howard was in February during a basketball game.

Meanwhile, Caban’s former teachers said she was saving for college in the fall and described her as a vibrant individual.

Howard’s death in particular punctuates a grim school year for Woodrow Wilson High School, where he was a junior.

Katrina McCombs, superintendent of the Camden City School District, said Howard is the fourth student with a connection to the school to die this year. He is the fifth person with a connection to the district to die — some of the deaths were of alumni.

Camden Schools superintendent, Katrina McCombs participates in the community rally held in Camden to create safer environment for children on Thursday, April 25, 2019. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

McCombs said she doesn’t know if this is the most violent year on record for the district.

“The impact this year, for whatever reason, feels like it has been the most devastating year,” she said. “I think it’s because there are so many students impacted at one high school community and one East Camden neighborhood.”

When school reconvenes Monday from spring break, counselors will be on site to help students and parents who need someone to talk to, McCombs said.

Counseling also was offered to members of the community at the Thursday night rally.

Call to action

Violent crime has dropped Camden over the years, but the homicide rate remained flat between 2017 and 2018.

Mayor Frank Moran called attention to the fact that the friends were simply hanging out and trying to enjoy Von Nieda Park.

“Not hanging in a negative way, but chilling, as some of them say, in a park during spring break, and they lost their lives,” he said. “This is not the first time that that has happened, as we can go name above name above name.”

He called on the community to “take back” the city, saying Camden couldn’t depend on the police or government to address the violence on their own.

Camden Mayor Frank Moran offer remarks in a community rally held in Camden to create safer environment for children on Thursday, April 25, 2019. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Roslyn Jeffers, Howard’s great-aunt, stood quietly at the back of the crowd as speakers remembered him. She agreed with the mayor, in part, but also called on private entities to mentor Camden’s youth.

“The 76ers gym down there, open it up and let those kids go down there and play basketball,” Jeffers said. “Campbell’s Soup, you got Subaru, find something for those kids to do.”

N’Namdee Nelson is an advisory board member for the Camden City School District and helped organize the call to action.

He said there are a lot of grassroots organizations doing the hard work of engaging the city’s youth through after-school activities.

Still, though there is a lot of good happening in Camden, Nelson said, they need more funding for existing youth programs and the creation of new ones. Like Jeffers, he could see the private sector coordinating with existing efforts.

“People often I think get mistaken that it’s just bad people, a lot of times it’s just people without the resources or the proper things in place to make sure they’re successful,” he said.

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