Note: Rise Above the Violence’s Mindfulness Event is scheduled for Saturday, May 7, at Washington oaks State Park. See details below.
Earlier this week Carmen Gray was in Atlanta. “I was actually doing an interview for another program, talking about mental health and talking about mental health awareness in the Black community very specifically, also the life and legacy of my son Curtis,” she said of 18-year-old Curtis Gray, the Flagler Palm Coast High School student murdered in the Palm Coast shopping strip off Belle Terre Parkway near Circle K three years ago. (His assailant, a year younger, was sentenced to 45 years in prison.)
“And the morning that I came back is when I received the news about Keymarion Hall,” Gray said. Hall, 16, a Palm Coast High School student–and like Gray a student-athlete–was killed by gunfire late the night of May 3 in Bunnell. Hall’s killing occurred less than four months after that of Noah Smith, also of FPC, also 16, also gunned down on a Bunnell street.
Carmen Gray, coincidentally, for weeks had been preparing for Saturday’s Rise Above the Violence “Mindfulness Event” at Washington Oaks State Park, a free, four-hour program designed to focus on trauma management. Gray has been holding four events a year related to her son’s memory, one on his birthday (last Dec. 11), one on the day he was killed (April 13), and two on different days of the calendar. After the first “Mindfulness Event,” a 5K walk and run organized with the City of Palm Coast, they’d all been virtual during the pandemic. Saturday’s will be the first in-person event since Covid, now produced with more urgency in light of the latest killing.
For Gray, the reaction was immediate when she learned of it. “I absorb that inwardly. It affects me physically because I still have triggers, dealing with anything of this nature,” Gray said. “Once again, as a mother, as a mother who has gone through this experience, it’s hard for me to be emotionally displaced from it.”
She has been suffering from PTSD. “So from a physical standpoint, I recall mentally, psychologically, emotionally, the where I was when I got the information, how I felt when I received the information, the physical impact that it had when I received that information, and what it feels like is indescribable. I use in a metaphorical sense what it’s like being in a body of water in which there is not a life raft, a boat, a landing site. It feels like a very helpless feeling. So my heart goes out to the mother, the family members, the students, the faculty and those who are close to this young man.”
She did not directly know Hall. But to his mother, she said she’d say to have faith–to which Gray attributes her ability to make it through her own loss–and “to allow herself to be vulnerable enough to receive help. And whatever lifelines are granted her through the community, through her family, not to be in isolation, but to allow those around her to help her. I would also very strongly encourage mental health support, because that loss is not just physical, it’s dynamically psychological and emotional. It’s traumatic. And the thing about trauma is that it starts off as a break. If it’s not treated, that break continues to become a place of weakness. So I would strongly advocate for positive mental health support as well.”
The image of a “break” or fissure that, left untreated, worsens and amplifies recurs to Gray as she describes even what she has come to see as part of the root source of the violence she has dealt with and she continues to see affecting young men in the community: there is a mental health gap, if not a void, which gatherings like Saturday’s “Mindfulness Event” are intended to address.
Gun violence is a symptom, not a cause, she said, explaining why she hasn’t wanted to just campaign against guns. It goes deeper than that, she said. “It needs to be explored. It needs to be dealt with, but we can only deal with it through awareness,” Gray said. “I have been very vocal even with local and national news so that we can broach the subject of violence at the root and not approach it from a symptomatic standpoint.”
Her son, she said, had worked with youths going through traumatic experiences. She sees herself as continuing the work, in this case utilizing Washington Oaks State Park’s own “mindfulness coaching service,” as she describes it before speaking of her wish for “mental ed” in schools, not just “phys ed.”
In a sense, that’s what Saturday’s event will be about: how to deal with anger, with “strong emotions,” with those risky fissures that could turn into something more lethal. “There’s a there’s a swell of emotion that’s associated with that. Sometimes people will become stuck because they don’t know what to do with that,” Gray said. “There’s tools, there’s resources, there’s practices, there’s things like cognitive therapy and things like that to help you gauge that and minimize it, to see it for what it’s worth, because you can go too far in the emotion and stay too long to the point where it becomes normal to you.” That normal is a problem which, left untreated, unmanaged, can lead to violence–against others or against oneself. “So we have to be able to help them manage those emotions. And you can’t do that without having an open dialogue, one that is honest, one that is transparent, and one that is solution oriented.”
Saturday’s “Mindfulness Event” will tap into those tools and engage participants through various activity-oriented learning means (including a scavenger hunt).
As she spoke during the half-hour interview, one of the many young people who’ve depended on Gray over the last few years for her mentorship texted her, as if illustrating the sort of contacts she’s head ceaselessly almost every day, and that coalesce at her events. She had a similar impulse to reach out after the shooting of Hall. “First thing I asked myself is what can I do? How can I assist? You know, in what area would the community need me so I’m open and I’m available in any capacity for the family?” Gray said.
All this in the context of her own persistent grief, and the grief she imagines Hall’s family, and particularly his mother, is experiencing. “People like myself maybe who didn’t directly know Keymarion Hall understand that when the life of a young man is taken, it is not a single incident,” Gray said. (See her statement to the court the day her son’s assailant was sentenced.) “The reason why I say that is because how I described it with my loss of Curtis: he was my only son, and from him stems a generation, so I won’t have grandchildren, those grandchildren won’t have grandchildren. So the significance of loss of life when it comes to a male is, it’s not a singular loss. It’s a generational loss and it’s beyond comprehension. So the body–my body responded to that.”
Rise Above the Violence’s Mindfulness Event is scheduled for Saturday, May 7, starting at 10 a.m. at Washington oaks State Park. The event is free aside from a $5 fee per vehicle entering the park. As Carmen Gray describes it, “This event will focus on trauma management and is being hosted by LLC RISE ABOVE THE VIOLENCE, INC as a means to provide each attendee with pertinent tools on how to manage trauma by paying attention to triggers that affect the body and emotions.” It will be facilitated by a specialist of the Mindfulness Program through Washington Oaks State Gardens and hosted by Gray. Participants are asked to wear LLC RTG [Rise to Greatness] shirts. There will be a moment of silence in recognition of the losses of Noah Smith and Keymarion Hall.