Gary Kyshon Miller was shot twenty years ago in New Haven. His mother, Marlene Miller-Pratt, moved from North Carolina to Connecticut to find his killer.
On a recent stormy spring day, Miller-Pratt flipped through a scrapbook dedicated to her late child.
She came to a black and white flier that says, “Who killed my son?”
“These were some of the pictures that I posted in the area,” Pratt said.
A young woman responded with a tip – days later. She identified the shooter because she didn’t want her own son to die by gun violence.
Pratt found justice when her son’s killer pleaded guilty, but it disturbs her how much violence New Haven has experienced since then.
“I was driving home and on my way home I saw yellow tape,” she said. “And this young lady said, ‘Oh, it’s someone else. It’s just another person shot and killed.’ And I couldn’t move. I sat right there for a minute and I said, ‘This is the mentality that New Haven has, that another life is gone and it’s okay.’”
Pratt turned to nature to cope. She visited the Marsh Botanical Gardens at Yale and found peace there.
“I would go in and I’d just reflect and you know, talk to my son,” she said.
Pratt found peace in gardening, too. She joined a tree planting program run by Yale called Urban Resource Initiative. Colleen Murphy-Dunning is the director of the program.
“I met Marlene through our community greenspace program,” Murphy-Dunning said. “In this case, Marlene came not just for her own son but for other parents who lost their kids to gun violence.”
Murphy-Dunning remembers how the mothers planted trees to honor their children, but Miller-Pratt wanted a whole garden. She told Murphy-Dunning that a memorial to gun violence victims would honor the 20th anniversary of her son’s death.
“I responded not as a professional but just as a person, just knowing how dear your children are to you and the idea that you can lose your child in such a terrible, violent way just spoke to me as a person,” Murphy-Dunning said.
So Murphy-Dunning suggested the mothers work with a special architecture firm. The mothers met Marissa Mead of Svigals and Partners, which designed the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, after the 2012 school shooting in Newtown.
“I think it was important for them to hear from us our experience in the design process,” Mead said.
Mead visited the mothers several times to hear their ideas. She pulled out a pamphlet that shows her final design for the memorial sculpture, inspired by stories like Marlene Miller-Pratt’s.
“The image is of a group of figures from the community. Some of the figures are represented as voids to indicate this ever-present sense of absence when we lose our loved ones,” Mead said.
She explained that from the side angle, you see the garden surroundings through the sculpture. The figures come into alignment when you walk into the heart of the garden. Then, the community will appear whole again.
The City of New Haven provided land at the foot of West Rock Park for what’s being called a Healing Garden. The city, state and private donors raised $700,000 to build it.
Marlene Miller-Pratt said she wants the garden to educate people about gun violence. She teaches at Career High School in New Haven. She said the garden is part of a larger plan to reach out to youth and it’s part of her healing process.
“It’s just – it feels so serene just knowing that this vision is, is coming to pass, that it’s going to happen,” Miller-Pratt said, standing at the center of the garden where the memorial sculpture will stand.
Pratt says her son’s death – and the many other lives lost to gun violence – will have greater meaning because it inspired this peaceful place for the whole community. She’ll see it come together on Saturday during the groundbreaking ceremony of the New Haven Botanical Garden of Healing, a park dedicated to victims of gun violence.