Homicide survivor hosts turkey giveaway for grieving families

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On the Monday before Thanksgiving, nearly two dozen families lined up around the block of the 77th Street police station in South Los Angeles for an annual turkey giveaway for families of murdered children. 

As each family reached the front of the line, a team of volunteers checked their names off a list before handing over a bag of assorted items like stuffing, green beans, cookie mix, and a turkey.

News of the free meals quickly spread through the surrounding Florence neighborhood, enticing some passersby to wait in line until they realized who the meals were prepared for.

“People like to ask ‘How do I get one? What’s the membership?’ ” chuckled LaWanda Hawkins, who has been running the event for more than 20 years after her son was found dead on the San Pedro docks in 1995. 

Then, in 2011, her sister was killed in Arizona when a teenager tried to shoot his mother.

Hawkins added: “I ain’t got time for them because they don’t want to be apart of our group. We don’t even want to be in it.”

The turkey giveaway is one of many events hosted throughout the year by her homicide victim support group, Justice for Murdered Children. But she says Thanksgiving often presents particular challenges.

While many families put up decorations and listen to holiday music, grief-stricken families remember an empty seat around their holiday table, Hawkins said.

“[Kids would] start talking about mom crying and all that.  And then I would understand what was going on. Parents were grieving. They were going into rooms, and the kids were left with nothing,” said Hawkins. 

In response, Hawkins began preparing Thanksgiving meal supplies to help grieving families in 1998.   She gathered about 500 turkeys, and sent bags of food to people around the county. 

In 2018, she was only able to give out 175 meals. That year, 640 people died in the county of Los Angeles, according to the LA Times

Hawkins said she has received less support from politicians and non-profits in recent years, and has scaled down her giving to South Los Angeles and families near her home in San Pedro. 

In particularly desperate years, she has approached people in the grocery store and given them some money towards a turkey, hoping they might spend some of their own money to buy one for her. Occasionally, they would keep the turkey, she said. 

This year, she reached out to other victim support groups in South Los Angeles who helped her purchase 100 turkeys, more than doubling the amount of turkeys she would have been able to afford. 

On the night of the giveaway, every single bag was given out. A few people, like Andre Christian, did not take a bag so someone else might have a meal for the holiday. 

Christian’s 16-year-old grandson, Jamie’on Jackson, was killed in June in Athens. His grandfather said he was shot in the car while listening to music. 

While Chrisitian has been dealing with his grief in a support group, he said his daughter has really struggled to feel supported through the death of her son. He added that the turkey giveaway was an encouraging sign that people still remember their pain. 

“A lot of times when people lose people, however they lose them, people forget about them after the funeral,” said Christian. “[The turkey giveaway] is one of the ways people let them know we haven’t forgotten about you guys.”  

Some of the other attendees had been coming for several years, like Cynthia Bejar, whose 24-year-old nephew Vincent Bejar was killed in 2008 in Bellflower. 

Bejar has been a part of Hawkin’s support group for about 10 years, and said the event helps her get through the holidays. Bejar, like Christian, also remarked about feeling isolated from others when she talked about her slain son.

“I'll be honest with you, there's a lot of people when you tell them that your loved one has been married, murdered, they don't know how to take it. They either walk away or change the subject,” said Bejar. 

She added, “But these people are family here today … They understand. And they're always giving big hugs. And it's just like a united family.”

Throughout the turkey giveaway, Hawkins avoided talking about her own grief, consistently rushing to tend to the next thing. Her mother, Maxine Anderson, periodically shook her head at Hawkins as her daughter rushed around until she needed to take a short break in her car. 

Anderson said Hawkins has several more events before the end of the year, including two different Christmas events for families of murder victims. Although Anderson plans to make her daughter rest on Christmas day, she also knows these events help her daughter grieve.

“I always say, ‘Oh you're doing too much. You’re going to have a heart attack,’ ” said Anderson.This is what she has to do…This is what keeps her going.”

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