A line of local teens stretched up the sidewalk of 21st Avenue South Monday evening.
Escorted by Federal Way police, crowd members held signs, one reading, “Stop the violence against our youth.” Many wore sweatshirts remembering a friend taken too soon.
The group of about 100 people marched in a peace walk to remember slain 16-year-old Wesley Gennings on the one-year-anniversary of when he was murdered on Feb. 13, 2016.
Leilani Gennings’ sign read, “Choose peace.”
In the year since her son’s murder, she’s has been through the unimaginable.
“Mamma G,” as Wesley Gennings’ friends call her, has attended the many court hearings of the teenagers charged with murdering her son. She’s faced threats, and she’s walked through life without her only son.
Monday was special, however, despite the heartache it brought.
“I’m so proud of these young men out here. I know just about every single one of them,” Leilani Gennings said of the marchers at the peace walk. “They never let him down, and they don’t let me down either.”
At the end of the walk, culminating in the Taco Bell parking lot, where Wesley Gennings was killed, Leilani Gennings and her niece Jessica Baxley announced the formation of Wesley’s Heart Foundation, a registered foundation with the vision to change hearts and build community one child at a time. Its mission is to reduce youth violence by providing resources for life, financial and educational goals and to develop a sense of belonging and ownership in the community.
“Anybody who knew Wes knew that Wes was about his friends, his family, his community,” Baxley said. “He was about bettering himself and taking others along for the ride. He would encourage you, push you. He would kick you if he had to get you there, but it was all in love, and we didn’t know a better way to express that and make sure that piece of Wes was carried on than to start what we call the Wesley’s Heart Foundation.”
Baxley said it is important for youth to “rise above” violence to create the needed change in Federal Way.
“You guys are the ones that’s going to change this community,” she said. “You guys are the ones that are going to make it safe to walk out here at night again. You guys are the ones who are going to decide how people view you again, how people view kids like Wes, your little brother, your little sister. We’ll give you the tools. Let’s build foundations, a community.”
In 2016, Federal Way experienced nine murders, the first victim being Wesley Gennings. As a response to the increase of crime, the city of Federal Way helped form a Violence Prevention Coalition steering committee, which is expected to deliver a recommendation to the mayor on how to reduce youth violence this April. Mayor Jim Ferrell also announced plans to hire nine more police officers in the 2017-18 biennium. After recent backlash on forming a transportation benefit district to pay for them, however, funding is short. The mayor expects to hire between two and six officers depending on available grants.
Hours after Wesley Gennings’ death, Federal Way police actively developed leads and interviewed at least 50 witnesses. After investigating, police arrested then-16-year-old Michael Rogers, who was found with a gun, and then-14-year-old Diante Pellum, who turned himself in. The two will be tried as adults and are currently being held in King County juvenile court facilities.
Leilani Gennings said she had a restless night leading up to the anniversary of her son’s death.
“When I did get the few moments to myself, the only thing I could do was look at my son’s picture and kiss him, hug him, love him and let him know how much I miss him, but I also know he’s still here,” she said.
Leilani Gennings said she believes her son is really happy with the establishment of a foundation in his honor.
“We don’t want another parent to have to go through what I went through,” she said. “We don’t wish this on anybody, whether it be a kid or an adult. It’s just a sad thing to happen, and you never thought it would be your kid.”
Baxley and Leilani Gennings also recognized people who made a difference within the last year by distributing awards.
Recipients include Federal Way detectives Heather Castro and Michael Coffey, South King Fire and Rescue, Pastor Dan Larson with Family Life Community Church, Saghalie Middle School coach Don Tuggle and family friends Stephanie, Chuck and Cece Greene.
The official launch of Wesley’s Heart Foundation will be in March at a local church. For more information, visit the Wesley’s Heart Foundation Facebook page, www.facebook.com/49onmine.