Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
In the minds of her family and friends, Eniyah Hollins will always be 24 years old with a future that had barely started.
In late June 2021, she was shot in the head while attending a party at a home in the first block of Hanover Street just south of Walter Avenue. She was the unintended target.
“Somebody started randomly shooting. He only shot one time into this crowd of people and she was hit in the back of the head,” says Nakisha Newton, Hollins mother. “That bullet was not intended for her.”
The details still matter to Newton, but something she tries not to dwell on. Instead, she has thrown her energy and focus into the founding of a new nonprofit created to provide support to others who have lost loved ones to random acts of gun violence. The organization called HEARTS, which stands for Hands Extended Among Randomly Taken Souls, began operating in March.
“Our vision is to bring awareness and education and support to the community to end gun violence, while also providing emotional, financial, and physical support to families impacted by random acts of gun violence,” Newton says. “We’re never going to be able to stop guns from floating around, but there should be stricter gun laws and punishments for those that use them recklessly.”
She says this is an area she would like to focus on in the future.
“The man who murdered my child walks free on July 23. There’s no way he should be out walking free. The judge gave him 19 months for reckless use of a firearm causing murder,” Newton says.
Nakisha Newtown started the organization called HEARTS, which stands for Hands Extended Among Randomly Taken Souls, began operating in March.
As a way to deal with the anxiety, depression, and anguish she struggles with since her daughter’s death, Newton began journaling which is how she came up with the idea for HEARTS. The nonprofit has a board of directors that meets monthly to plan fundraisers and community events, including a walk on the fourth Sunday of each month to promote gun violence awareness.
These walks are open to community residents and begin at 4 p.m. at a park across from the Kool Family Community Center.
“At these walks, we have different guest speakers who talk on subjects related to gun violence and mental health,” Newton says. “We gather in bright safety orange and walk a mile after the speaker speaks and everyone does a mile for every one lost to gun violence.”
These events speak to people of all ages, says Aleena Robinson, Victim Advocate Coordinator with the Battle Creek Police Department who met Newton in the summer of 2021 after her daughter’s death.
“I worked with her and her family with regard to the loss of her daughter,” Robinson says.
In addition to these walks, HEARTS has done yard sales at Bailey Park with all proceeds going back to the organization and trauma yoga in May at Piper Park which Newton hopes to continue.
On Saturday (June 24) HEARTS is collaborating with Hood Church
to host a free community event from 1-5 p.m. at Claude Evans Park called “Hearts in the Hood.” Activities will include a dunk tank where attendees will have the opportunity to dunk an officer with the Battle Creek Police Department, a car show, free haircuts, a basketball tournament, and a bounce house. Food is being provided free of charge by Holy Smoke BBQ.
On August 5 and 6 HEARTS is collaborating with S.I.S.T.E.R.S. (Sharing In the Support of Those Enforcing Victims’ Rights Shamelessly) Turning Pain Into Purpose which is made up of mothers whose sons and daughters were the victims of violent crimes in Battle Creek that have yet to be solved. Its founder, Rosetta Brewer formed the organization after her son Frank Williams III was shot and killed outside a known crack house in January 2006
Newton says the money raised at these events goes to HEARTS which uses it to assist the families it was established to serve.
All donations from these fundraising events are used to provide hospitality baskets for families who have lost loved ones to gun violence and dinners after services for those they have lost.
“We have people who donate gas cards and food to these families,” Newton says. “I feel like the community is aware of the need to do something to stop gun violence.”
Nakisha Newton and her daughter, Eniyah Hollins, 24, who died due to gun violence in 2021 shared the same birthday.
Robinson says the work of HEARTS and SISTERS is increasing awareness of gun violence. She says this year has been more difficult on an emotional level for the community because “We are seeing more juveniles involved in the commission of crimes.”
For many of the families who have lost loved ones to gun violence emotional closure has yet to come. Robinson says COVID put a pause on in-person jury trials because there was no way to convene a non-biased jury in a Zoom format.
“I have many, many families and I still have families from 2020 who are waiting to see that day in court. It suspends their grief,” Robinson says. “There’s no fix to it, but knowing that there are other families in that space gives them someone to commiserate with and they have someone who understands what they’re going through” like Newton and Brewer.
“Unfortunately many families anticipate that once the trial is over all these feelings of grief will go away. Rarely is there a family that thinks that justice can be served because it won’t bring their loved one back.”
Shortly after she began working with the BCPD in 2020, Robinson put up a board in her office with the names and information about the families she works with. That board has been separated into four sections because she still has families from 2020 who are waiting for a resolution that has yet to come.
In her role, she can make referrals to different community agencies based on a family’s needs and what she knows about them through conversations. She says it’s important to pair resources and her services with families and stays abreast of community events and community organizations such as HEARTS.
“Once they’re ready to accept someone into their life, I can build that support for them,” Robinson says. “The situations they’re in and the grief that they’re experiencing can be so isolating. I want to make sure they feel like they’re being heard.”
For those who aren’t in a place where they’re ready to do individual counseling or don’t have a church group to support them or work 9 to 5, support groups like HEARTS and SISTERS are critical because they give people another way to share their grief through one-on-one conversations, Facebook posts or text messages.
“I’ve got four years of families I’m working with. Support groups like this are important,” Robinson says.
Her job requires her to maintain a professional demeanor and she can’t allow her judgment to be clouded by a flood of emotions.
“I can’t offer support. I can offer empathy but in a professional capacity. My expertise lies in building a support team for you,” Robinson says. “I would never say to a mother who's lost a child that ‘I know how you feel.’ But I can say that I know other ladies in the community who also need this support and offer a safe space where this support can be fostered.”
Helping others while managing her own grief
“It’s hard,” Newton says of managing the grief she continues to deal with after her daughter’s death. Despite this, she says she wants to be there to support those who are or will be experiencing the kind of loss no parent is prepared for.
“We come together and support each other. I have had these families reach out to me to talk. The events we have give them somebody to talk to who has been through it,” Newton says. “If I can lift a little weight for these families, I will do it. It’s very hard to talk to these moms and dads and see them broken when it’s still fresh for myself.”
For people who have never experienced the loss of a child through senseless acts of gun violence, Newton says they can’t fathom the depths of grief that people like her experience.
“Eniyah Hollins lost her life to gun violence at a party in June, 2021.
The worst part of this for us would be putting our child in the ground. It’s the absolute worst,” she says. “They may have sympathy and empathy, but having a real understanding of this new life that people like me find ourselves in, no not at all.”
However, she is not the only one facing this new life reality. Newton has two daughters, ages 22 and 16, who are on this journey with her. She says she worries about their safety. Her 22-year-old lives in Grand Rapids and her youngest daughter lives with her.
“In this crazy world we live in now, I worry about their safety every day,” Newton says. “I’ve gotten a little more overprotective. They’re O.K., but right after it happened the little one had started making bad decisions and gotten into a little bit of trouble. Both of them have been in counseling. They are some strong, little young ladies. They definitely keep me going."
As part of her own healing process, Newton has turned to meditation and exercise. She has learned the importance of freeing her feelings.
“I have to release those tears and acknowledge what I’m going through. Exercise has helped me get out of a lot of dark spots of depression as well as close family and friends and also talking about my child and keeping her name out there and pictures of her around.”
“You just learn to cope and find different ways to deal with it every day. I’m OK. I would say and then on the other side would say, ‘Life Sucks.' It’s not great having a child with you and then she’s gone. I still have good and bad days. I had her when I was 18 and we share the same birthdate. I had a very special bond with her.”
Even as she shares how this loss has impacted her, Newton and her HEARTS members are gathering to prepare to support the next family who will go through what they have already been through.
“Clearly, there’s a need. I’ve counted four funerals of young people since March,” she says. “I feel like I just want people in our community to get a better grasp on life itself. We need to build better foundations starting in our homes and in our schools and churches and our police department so people can feel like they can trust people going through these things. It’s going to take everyone coming together to make a change.”
For those seeking more information about HEARTS or interested in donating, Newton says they may contact her at: email@example.com