Highland Park, Michigan
Every parent’s worst nightmare is losing their child. Shamayim Harris has lived through that nightmare twice.
On September 23, 2007, their 2-year-old son, Jacoby Rae, was struck and killed in a hit-and-run in Highland Park, a suburb of Detroit.
She recalled, “I really thought I wouldn’t be able to work or survive or do anything.”
In 2021, he experienced that heartbreaking loss again when his 23-year-old son, Chinelu, was shot and killed while on neighborhood watch in his community.
As he faced his profound grief, he also discovered his determination to put it to good use. For the past 15 years, her trauma has fueled her mission to transform her struggling, neglected community into a vibrant village.
Harris, better known as Mama Shu, said, “I needed to turn misery into glory, pain into power.” “I just tried to turn it into something bearable and beautiful.”
In the early 1900s, Highland Park, Michigan, became famous as the home of the first Ford Motor Company factory to produce millions of Model T cars. But as the automotive industry left the area, the city suffered. Residents moved away, crime spiked, schools closed, storefronts emptied.
“I was very apprehensive about what I would see walking into Highland Park,” said Mama Shu, a longtime resident there. “I wanted to live in a beautiful city. I wanted flowers. I wanted a successful business. I thought we deserved it.”
Mama Shu had dreams of what his city would become. She would often pass by a street, especially Avalon Street, and visualize it.
“I would look at this block like, ‘Wow, man, if we clear this block and do this and do that,'” she said. “I saw quite clearly what it could look like.”
Six months after Jacobi Ra’s death, a house at the corner of Avalon Street went up for sale for $5,000. Mama Shu didn’t have the money for it, but she knew she had to get home. He immediately called the realtors.
“I said, ‘I’ll give you all $3,000.’ And I didn’t even have $3,000,” she said. “I just had to make sure I got it.”
Mama Shu bought the house with her savings and borrowed money. And then slowly he started buying other lots on Avalon Street.
“Initially, I started building the village with whatever money I got,” he said. “Income tax refund check, my work check, selling fish sandwiches for $5, receiving donations.”
Plans were drawn up for what she envisioned, and for eight years, she and volunteers worked to clear the block; Some houses were demolished, some were renovated.
In 2016, Mama Shu created Avalon Village, a non-profit organization whose mission is to revitalize the street and make it a safe and nurturing place for the entire community. Today, he and his organization own 45 pieces of land in three blocks.
By far the biggest project on the block is to completely refurbish one of the abandoned houses into an after-school center for the kids.
During her 27 years working as an administrator in Highland Park Public Schools, Harris saw firsthand the overcrowded classrooms and lack of resources. She said, she wanted the Homework House to have everything the children lacked. The space now houses a library, computers, a 3D printer, a music studio, a kitchen, and full bathrooms with handicapped access.
Mama Shu said, “When the kids come to Homework House, I want to make sure they get all the attention and love they deserve.” “It’s meant to look like home, smell like home, be decorated like home.”
Avalon Village also features a STEM lab and basketball court, as well as refurbished shipping containers that house the Goddess Marketplace, a store where women artisans and entrepreneurs can sell their products.
For lighting and security on Avalon Street, Mama Shu installed five solar streetlights with Wi-Fi capabilities, making it the first relit block in Highland Park, she said, since many of the city’s streetlights were retrofitted in 2011. I went.
Mama Shu’s cause of street rehabilitation is never far from his mind. Memories of his sons are found throughout the parks and gardens of Avalon Village.
“I want the village to be an influence of resilience and to recognize the spirit of my boys,” she said.
His son Chinelu helped make his dream of building this oasis a reality.
Mama Shu said, “He was the person that everyone said was like me, as far as doing community things.” “I love that about her, and I miss that about her. He was a good fellow.
Mama Shu wants to do a lot more. He plans to build a cafe, a greenhouse for farm-to-table cooking, a laundromat and a wellness center. They also aim to build market-rate housing on the road.
“I would love to see all four blocks of Avalon be beautiful,” she said. “I would love for it to be contagious, and I would love for it to spread across town. …sadness is the energy to move forward. I think I probably have enough energy to build the whole world.
want to join? check out Avalon Village Website See more how to help.
To donate to Avalon Village via GoFundMe, Click here