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From overlooked to empowered: Juanita Batchelor’s efforts to stem gun violence, in honor of her son

The loss of a loved one to gun violence—whether to homicide or incarceration—forever changes the lives of those left behind. There is anger and pain, and the feeling of coming undone. There is worry for the safety of the children in the community. There is the daily work of helping children to grieve and cope. There is the wanting of justice. There is the overwhelming feeling of being alone.

Juanita Batchelor of Springfield knows these feelings on a personal level and has emerged as an influential voice and unifier in her community.

“I’m motivated by the loss of my son,” says Juanita. “He was a good kid. Music was his thing. He loved cooking. He loved for us all to get together and cook.”

Juanita’s only son, Darrell Lee Jenkins Jr., was shot and killed in front of their Springfield home on June 4, 2014, and the murder remains unsolved. After his death, she didn’t know what her rights were, or which services were available—all while newly assuming the care of his two young daughters.

“I felt overlooked,” Juanita says. “I don’t want anyone else to have to deal with the murder of a loved one on their own.”

On July 28, 2021, Juanita cut the ribbon during a reopening celebration of the Darrell Lee Jenkins Jr. Families of Homicide Resource Center. Her Springfield-based organization—founded in 2015 and registered as a nonprofit since June 4, 2020—is dedicated to supporting anyone affected by gun violence. It offers support groups and services to help families interact with law enforcement, identify advocates, navigate court appearances, grieve, and more.

“We are a family for life,” Juanita says, of the community her nonprofit fosters among its members. “We eat together and cry together and listen to music together.”

Juanita’s growth and advocacy work have been propelled in the past few years by her participation in the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) Program, which she joined in 2016 in hopes of giving her grandkids a better upbringing.

“The program has helped me realize a different way of life and taught me that things like owning my own home are a possibility,” says Juanita, who aspires to someday purchase a two-family home and is working to improve her credit. The program also helped her gain the connections and know-how to start her organization.

The FSS Program, which was developed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and is open to those receiving a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, is intended to help participants chart out a five-year course toward economic mobility. At each step along their journey, participants receive the training and mentorship needed to reach their goals.

When asked to pinpoint the most helpful aspect of the FSS Program?

“Definitely having a mentor! And learning how to write up business proposals,” says Juanita, who plans to graduate from the program this year. “That’s what helps me get grants.”

In early 2020, the FSS Program helped Juanita connect with MassHire through a new collaborative economic mobility program. It brought her access to courses in technology, grant writing, and business proposals—all of which she’s used to grow her nonprofit, which was originally named MORE, or Mothers Overlooked, Reaching out for Empowerment.

Today, Juanita’s resource center is buzzing with energy. A new support group for children balances fun activities with time to speak with a clinician. There is an empowerment group for women of color. The support group for adults tackles such issues as grief and sobriety. There’s a library on site of books authored by people of color. There are plans to coordinate more directly with the District Attorney’s office, to allow for more seamless contact with families right from the courthouse.

“On ‘More Mondays,’ we go out into the high crime areas and literally cook a meal. It could be a big chicken meal or a hot dog and some chips,” says Juanita, the 2021 Juneteenth Jubilee recipient of the city’s Rising Star award. “As we pass out food we try and get opinions on what we can do to support the neighborhoods. Then we bring this back to the mayor or to the commissioner, to let them know.”

Juanita’s resolve is steely, but she pauses to reflect on a recent loss to her family. Her son-in-law Reginald Dessasure was shot and killed in Springfield in April 2021. He leaves behind three young children.

“That almost threw me off,” Juanita says. “I was almost like, ‘What am I doing this for? If people around me are still getting killed?’”

But the outpouring of support to her family, especially from those who rallied to help cover Reginald’s funeral costs, opened her eyes to the reach of her work. Such networks and connections didn’t exist following the loss of her son.

“We are doing something,” says Juanita, who dreams of more grants and a bigger future space. “This place is really needed. I believe that we are stronger when we come together.”