CHESTER >> The healing power of art is providing families with another outlet to cope with the loss of a loved one to gun violence.
Charles Edward Reynolds Jr. and James Hamler III are the first two people to be immortalized in paintings created through the Celebration of Life Portrait Program, a newly launched initiative through Heeding God’s Call to let families cope together and create art in the process.
Reynolds’ and Hamler’s families met with other community members at Chester Friends Meeting House Sunday afternoon to show off their works and to discuss the positive impact the program has had on them.
“When we first started, it brings back all of the memories,” said Reynolds’ father, Charles Reynolds Sr. “Everybody is going around the room saying how they’ve lost a child and they shed tears and share their story. It’s a special group to be in.”
Reynolds, and his wife, Diana, along with other families met weekly with the program facilitators to use that time to discuss openly the feelings they have about the tragedies that have affected their families. Working with art therapist Carolyn Falcone and artist Angel Pabon, families were able to express all of their emotions and incorporate them into an original piece of art.
The idea to use art as part of the healing process started with the Rev. Bernice Warren, the iconic Chester community activist who fought ardently for the Chester community, and who passed away a few weeks ago. Warren saw so much potential in an idea that was then brought to fruition by Heeding God’s Call, the anti-gun violence grassroots group.
“I wanted to offer a way to comfort the families and feed an opportunity to transcend their emotions,” said Falcone, who has been working with bereavement groups for 40 years. “The most important thing is what they shared with each other.”
Ralph Ciampa of Heeding God’s Call is a former chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania who tended to trauma patients, including shooting victims. He said the way to deal with a tragic event is to have strong support systems.
“The main factor is being in community, having people that one can share their grief with and relate to,” he said, adding that a foundation in faith may be helpful, too.
Alas, everyone is different in how they cope, said Ciampa, but the response to the Celebration of Life program has been very good during this initial offering.
“The receptivity of the experience has just been very heartwarming,” he said. “The depth that these people (were) engaged in the experience was more than we could have hoped for.”
Reynolds called the experience very therapeutic.
“Sometimes, I get more sensitivity, more caring from other people. That keeps us looking forward to the next day, it gives us hope to look forward to that next day,” he said. “People do care – they might not have met (Charles and James) in person, but they do care. They know there was a life, they were human.
“To this day when I walk up and see the (paintings) it gives me chills.”
The Reynolds have been coping with the loss of their only child, affectionately nicknamed ‘Little Boo,’ since he was shot to death in July 2006. The murder of Reynolds Jr. has gone unsolved. Also in the initial offering of the program was Tina Hamler, whose son, James Hamler III, was killed in July 2017.
Tina Hamler was very enthusiastic about her involvement in the program, saying there were times when she was crying at the weekly session of therapy and art and crying on the way home from the sessions.
Heeding God’s Call has been working to end gun violence with its iconic T-shirt memorial, which puts up T-shirts at a select location to give a visual representation of the problem. This year, they put up approximately 170 shirts to represent the shooting deaths in the county for the past five years.
Chester is the epicenter of these statistics where shootings are most common in the county. After losing his son in this matter, it doesn’t get any easier for Reynolds Sr. to hear about the latest incident.
“Whenever you hear about one it takes you back,” he said.
To join the fall installment of Celebration of Life Portrait Program, contact Ralph Ciampa at email@example.com. The program is free and will run for six sessions every Saturday morning from Oct. 27 to Dec. 15, starting at 9:30 a.m. at Chester Friends Meeting (no sessions on Nov. 10 or 24).