CHICAGO — Corniki Bornds sits on the sofa in her living room, where reminders of her son, her only child, adorn the walls and shelves. Just around the corner is his room, a place she couldn’t enter for six months after he went to play basketball with his friends and never came home.
Bornds fights back tears as she remembers her son Fontaine “BJ” Sanders, who was murdered almost two years ago.
“He was the joy of my life,” she said. “If nothing else happened in my life, having him, my life was complete.”
But his life was cut short just days before his 20th birthday. His graduation from Robert Morris University was coming up in a few weeks.
That Monday morning, during college-break week, Sanders and his friends were walking to the basketball courts at Franklin Park, several blocks from home. A typical teenager, Sanders was looking down at his phone when a car drove past, then circled around. His head was still bent when shots were fired, hitting him in the top of the head.
Detectives at the hospital told Bornds her son was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but she can’t accept that.
“How could a kid be in the wrong place at the park? He wasn’t in the wrong place. The shooter was in the wrong place,” she said. “He was where he was supposed to be, doing what he should be doing at that age.”
Bornds admits she wanted to let anger control her after the death of her son. She didn’t know how to go about living a positive life when the person her life centered around was gone.
People who understand
Although her family members did their best to support her, Bornds needed to be around people who truly understood what it was like to lose a child. She had a flyer about a support group for parents who have lost children to gun violence, and on a particularly tough day she decided to see what the group was all about.
She immediately felt this was where she was supposed to be.
Although it took several meetings to feel comfortable sharing her story at meetings coordinated by Parents for Peace & Justice, she soon let her guard down and found the connection she’d been craving. She credits PPJ, a Mennonite Central Committee Great Lakes partner, with helping her cope.
“Having those moms around makes a big difference,” she said. “[There’s] nothing like talking to somebody who really knows what you’re feeling.”
Just a couple of months after Sanders’ death, Bornds attended a daylong retreat with PPJ made possible by a grant from MCC Great Lakes. It included trauma- healing trainings, counseling sessions, grief workshops and a visit to a salt cave to highlight the importance of self-care for about 25 survivor families who lost family members to gun violence.
“It was amazing,” Bornds said. “It just gave me so much help.”
Bornds also participated in a Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience training sponsored by MCC in September. A five-day educational and experiential training, STAR brings information about restorative justice, emotional and physical security, spirituality and conflict transformation to address trauma, break cycles of violence and build resilience.
Bornds learned about the importance of self-care. She realized getting help after the traumatic murder would assist in preventing her from sliding into destructive habits.
“There’s no place to start and end with grief,” she remembers. “It can happen in any order.”
Bornds keeps Sanders’ memory alive. Last year she planned a basketball game at Franklin Park, where her son was killed. The second annual event was scheduled for April, bringing together Sanders’ friends from grammar school, high school, the Amateur Athletics Union and college to play the game he loved.
There were “so many people at the park that they had to tell me our capacity is only 250,” Bornds remembered. “It’s one day where you’re back in the community and nobody is looking at the park as the place where BJ died.”
Though she knows he’s gone, some days Bornds expects to see Sanders walking back from the park with his signature walk.
“I tell everybody when I go there, I’m not going to claim this as the place where my son died,” Bornds said. “It’s the place my son lived.”