Garden in Watts offers healing to crime survivors

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Survivors Healing Garden volunteers pose together. Photo courtesy of U.S. Green Building Council, Los Angeles.

Oya Sherrills started the Survivors Healing Garden in Watts specifically for people who have been assaulted, robbed, shot, or lost a loved one in an act of violence. She’s also a survivor: her brother Terrell was murdered in 2004.

“He was a life-of-the-party type of guy,” recalls Oya about Terrell, who was home from college during winter break when he was gunned down. “That really shook my dad, it shook our family.”

Their father, Aqueela, started The Reverence Project, a nonprofit that provides services and support to survivors of crime, to honor Terrell. Oya, who serves as project director at The Reverence Project – where the garden is located – saw an opportunity to further the organization’s mission by creating a safe space in nature for people to heal.

“We know that just 15 minutes in nature can reduce the effects of PTSD, anxiety, and depression,” Oya explains. “And we also have discovered that the built environment … also has a serious effect on cycles of violence, or cycles of healing.”

The Survivors Healing Garden, which features plants native to California, was once a junkyard. Its conversion back to a natural space also fits with the Reverence Project’s mission of healing. The hope is that the garden also helps reduce the temperature in the area, which is higher than in other parts of Los Angeles due to the abundance of asphalt and concrete and lack of green spaces.

“That heat factor … raises tempers,” Oya laments. “And so you have a lot more incidents of violence … in communities like ours.”

The garden’s main purpose, though, is to provide a safe space for survivors, many of whom may be experiencing complicated feelings of anger, grief, and hopelessness.  

“When [survivors] have support, they can allow themselves to feel the pain and feel the grief,” says Oya. “[They] come to the garden and … create this living memorial, or living altar, for their loved ones. And also for their own healing.”

The term “survivor” connects to the neighborhood as well. Watts, which has dealt with decades of violence and lack of resources, has come to stand for an acronym – “We Are Taught To Survive.” But the term “survivor” offers a deeper meaning too.

“‘Victim’ denotes the hurt and unaddressed trauma … ‘survivor’ means that you have, at the very least, started towards healing, started to address that trauma, started to address that grief, even if there's anger there.”

It’s a process Oya, and her father Aqueela, have undergone in the aftermath of Terrell’s death. His death ultimately inspired not revenge, says Oya, but their life’s work of striving for peace.

“You'll see a picture of [Terrell] on the wall [at The Reverence Project]. He always had a smile on everybody's faces. So that's what we want to bring into the garden.”

“We know that just 15 minutes in nature can reduce the effects of PTSD, anxiety, and depression,” says Oya Sherrills. Photo courtesy of U.S. Green Building Council, Los Angeles.



  • Oya Sherrills - project director, survivor’s advocate, The Reverence Project, and host, “Survivors Heal” podcast, iHeartRadio