When Monique Willis’ son, Alonzo Thomas IV, was murdered in April 2014, in a crime that remains unsolved, she was lost in grief.
Initially, she focused on trying to solve his murder, teaming up with anti-violence organizations near her Kansas City, Mo., home to encourage anyone with information to come forward. But as the months stretched on, her frustrations grew. Communication with the police was spotty at best, and existing groups couldn’t provide the kind of support she needed. When Willis’ outreach efforts connected her with another grieving mother coping with an unsolved murder, she knew she was not alone in her experience — and Willis’ transformation into a “momma on a mission” began.
Momma on a Mission (MOM) is a nonprofit organization that Willis founded later in 2014 to help families like hers navigate the personal fallout after the murder of a family member, encourage them to become more engaged citizens and connect them with a supportive, understanding community. It is a small, local operation that Willis runs entirely out of her home, while working a 9-to-5 job as a case manager for a home health agency.
MOM is one of a growing number of local and national organizations that are helping the families of homicide victims whose murders have not been solved. Sadly, these groups have become all too necessary. Even as murders and the overall crime rate in the United States have fallen, the clearance rate for homicides — the percentage that have been solved — has plummeted to 66 percent in 2016 from 91 percent in 1965, according to the Pew Research Center.
“I realized I wasn’t the only one in this situation,” Willis says, especially in Kansas City, where the clearance rate, at 49 percent, is significantly worse than the national average. “I decided to help other families who were not getting any help or attention.”
From Tragedy to Hope
April 5, 2014 was the worst day of Willis’ life. That afternoon, her son was gunned down by unknown assailants in a white van that drove past the family home.
Willis was away in Arkansas visiting other family members. And the moment she got the call about her son, she jumped into her car and drove 6 hours back to Kansas City. But she soon found herself in a “hurry up and wait” situation. Details of the crime were fuzzy at the outset, and the homicide investigation stalled soon after, to her extreme frustration. “No one seemed available to answer questions or actually wanted to help,” Willis says.
As Willis became more involved in local anti-violence organizations, she found herself wishing there was an organization that worked specifically for and with families coping with unsolved murders like her son’s.
Willis’ organization began with her and a small group of volunteers who passed out flyers seeking leads about her son’s murder. MOM is still staffed solely by Willis and aided by volunteers who help with events. Much of its funding comes from individual donors, as well as sales of merchandise and proceeds from fundraising events. Willis also maintains connections with a number of likeminded organizations that broaden MOM’s reach.
The organization helped 30 families in 2016, or 12 percent of the families of Kansas City’s homicide victims. Willis’ flagship fundraising event, Walk a Mile in My Shoes, is a march held around the anniversary of her son’s death that’s designed to spread awareness about violence and the nation’s historically low homicide-clearing rate. She also organizes vigils where mothers of unsolved murder victims vent and organize.
Willis believes drawing attention to victims and their families can help solve the wider problems of community engagement with the police.
Addressing Broader Issues
As the number of unsolved homicides swells, Willis is dedicated to helping the families grapple with the frustration and confusion they face in the days, months and years following the crime. A key MOM program called Lost Love helps them with funeral arrangements and services, provides financial assistance and even helps write obituaries.
Willis is also working to stem eroding communication between police and communities, as incidents of police brutality continue to make headlines and polarize discussions throughout the nation. The resulting chasm of trust and a lack of faith in the police within some communities discourages witnesses of crimes from stepping forward, resulting in many crimes going unreported — and going unsolved, which further stokes mistrust.
To foster community engagement, MOM has created community programs, including acquiring billboards and creating rewards for information, to help the families of victims get justice. “Most of the time, the crimes are being solved by the community. So if the community speaks up and follows through with the actual process, it can help,” Willis says.
A Hard Journey
Willis describes her work with MOM is part of her commitment to honor the memory of her son. The first Saturday of every April, near the anniversary of Thomas’ death, she marches to raise money and awareness. For her, it’s a day of mourning, but it’s also a day of hope — that the violence that forever changed her life can be stopped and that families like hers will find peace.
But for now, her work is needed. Indeed, Willis plans to apply for grants so she can expand the programs she has in place and secure an office space that will better accommodate the families meeting with her.
Her greatest goal is to bridge the gaps between police and community and open doors for victims’ families wherever she can. “Meeting other families and taking on their grief, while still dealing with my own, was a lot for me.” But taking on this mission, giving a mother’s support and helping ease their suffering, has also given her real strength.