SOUTH CHICAGO — Three years after her daughter Hadiya was shot to death, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton is sick of vigils.
"They're just all about sadness," Cowley-Pendleton said. "And the sadness is there — it hurts like hell. But the question was, what do we do with it all?"
With a DJ playing blues classics and a room packed with mingling friends and neighbors, the event she hosted at New Look Restaurant, 2544 E. 83rd St., Friday night didn't feel like it was marking the memory of a tragedy.
Billed as "A Commitment to Healing," the event doubled as a grand opening for the restaurant, which is owned by Hadiya's father, Nathaniel Pendleton. On the invitation list was every Chicagoan who had lost a loved-one to gun violence, and dozens showed up.
Both parents said they hoped it would be the first of many opportunities for survivors to come together and show mutual support.
"We're building this community of people that you can talk to and network with, so you don't feel so alone," Cowley-Pendleton said. "I feel alone without my daughter, but having this group together strengthens me. Instead of just laying in my grief, I can share it with people, and they can share theirs."
Hadiya was shot and killed in Kenwood on Jan. 29, 2013, nine days after she attended President Barack Obama's second inauguration in Washington, D.C. Since then, Barack and Michelle Obama have repeatedly mentioned the teen as a symbol for the countless promising lives erased by gun violence.
Outside the restaurant, before a coordinated balloon release that Cowley-Pendleton described as a way for all the families to "let go" of their collective grief, anti-violence activist and Chicago Survivors crisis responder Andrew Holmes addressed attendees.
"No one wants to be in these shoes. But at the same time, I'm glad the Pendleton family is here to raise their daughter's name up, as we do our own children," said Holmes, whose 32-year-old daughter was shot to death last August. "And the pain continues to go on. But the only way to go forward is to stick together as one unit."
Holmes urged the families to do what they could to break the cycle of violence that had ripped away their loved ones, so their circle of survivors could stop growing.
"We have to let every family know that this is not a police issue, this is not a mayor's issue. This is a community issue, because those people pulling the trigger are in our own families," Holmes said. "We have to come together and hug each other and support each other. It's the only way we can take on all the hate in this city."
Illinois Sen. Mattie Hunter, whose 3rd District represents a large chunk of the South Side, attended not only as an elected official, but as a fellow survivor. Two of her nephews were gunned down in Chicago last July 4 weekend while on a visit from Missouri, she said.
Hunter said coming face-to-face with loss filled her with a new sense of government's role in making it stop.
"Seeing all these families and knowing the suffering we all go through ... shows how important it is to advocate for things like jobs programs and crisis intervention," Hunter said. "You can hear about it on the news, but to be able to see and touch all these families shows us we need to work harder and smarter."
The Pendletons called the night their "first annual" survivors' gathering, a jumping-off point to keep growing their network.
"I want you all to think of a commitment you can make, some positive difference you can make in your life," Cowley-Pendleton said just before the balloon release. "And I'll see you all back here next January 29, so you can tell me about it."
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