Darin Toliver was driving through West Philadelphia wondering what to eat for lunch when on a whim, he headed to the 5000 block of Walton Street, the scene of a recent quadruple shooting.
There, the co-founder of the Black Men at Penn School of Social Work noticed a group of young males standing outside a modest rowhouse.
They’d set up a small but touching memorial to their late classmate Sy-eed Woodson — some flowers, a piece of artwork and a neatly folded, striped uniform tie that belonged to Josiah Kaine, Sy-eed’s best friend.
The youngsters, all dressed in their Boys Latin khaki pants and blue dress shirts, were talking quietly. School had dismissed early, so they stopped by their classmate’s house to pay their respects.
Toliver glanced their way, circled the block, returned and parked his car. A trained mental health practitioner, he forgot all about his growling stomach and walked toward the boys, hoping to help them through the painful process of grieving the untimely death of one of their own.
Sy-eed, 18, had been a popular and gifted senior at Boys Latin. Just last week, he had been inducted into the National Honor Society. Sy-eed also had competed on the school’s bowling team and participated in a competition focused on classical history and Latin. He had planned to attend college and wanted to pursue a career in ophthalmology or optometry.
But that was before his half-brother, Maurice Louis, 29, shot and fatally wounded him. Louis, who has confessed, also killed their half-brother, Leslie Woodson-Holmes, 7; their mother, Janet Woodson, 51; and their stepfather, Leslie Holmes, 56. Their bodies were discovered Wednesday. Relatives say Louis had mental health issues.
Toliver, 50, began by mentioning his nephew, a recent Boys Latin grad, and Tyhir Barnes, a teenager killed in 2016, who they also knew.
“You could see they were kind of like in disbelief,” Toliver told me later. “This is why they need mental health professionals to come and talk to them.
“When you go through a traumatic situation like this, you really don’t know how to process it,” he said. “I told them that it’s OK to express how they feel. This was their classmate. Whatever feelings they were going through, it was fine. It’s OK.
“Be open about how you feel,” Toliver added. “Asking for help is OK. Becoming emotional or crying is OK.”
The kind of trauma those boys are experiencing is hard enough for adults — not to mention for kids their age. Those students should have been off somewhere, getting a head start on their homework instead of engaging in what’s become an all-too-common occurrence in Philly — mourning the death of young victims of gun violence.
It’s disturbing how losing a friend has become almost a rite of passage these days. When Toliver asked if they’d lost a friend, every one of them raised his hand.
Yes, they were offered grief counseling at school.
But I’m glad Toliver, who is also an associate director of the African American Resource Center at the University of Pennsylvania, was also there for them.
He’s a calming presence. I’ve watched him many times standing in crowds at prayers vigils around the city, his brow furrowed in concern.
We don’t do enough to help young people in these situations. We need to clone men like Toliver. We also need citywide trauma buses that can show up in crisis situations like this and offer on-the-spot therapy to all affected. It’s really important.
I love that Toliver urged the students to focus on how Sy-eed lived instead of how he died.
“I told them don’t let what happened at this house be a representative of what he was,” he said.
In other words, focus on the good memories. Remember the laughter. Remember the fun times.
Jenice Armstrong is an award-winning metro columnist who writes about local and national news for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com.
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