Guest Commentary: New Restaurants Highlight Arts District���s Resiliency

CHAMPAIGN — In 1976, 16-year-old Janice Walker’s parents sat her down and unleashed a surprise that would change her life.

“My mother said, ‘I have something to share with you,’” she said. “And of course, your eyebrows go up, you’re wondering, ‘What does mom want to tell me?’

“And she said, ‘You have a brother.’ And I was like, ‘No, I don’t.’ I was shocked. Just shocked. And then it was like, ‘Oh my God, when can I meet him?’”

When she saw Melvin Worix, who was 20 years her senior, she could see the family resemblance. She marveled that a man could have a face that resembled her father’s as much as it did — even if, she joked, he was three times the size.

Worix quickly became part of the family. He’d come over to the Walkers’ home in Chicago’s West Chesterfield neighborhood and bring his significant other and kids along with him.

For decades, Walker’s relationship with her brother grew, even after he moved to Phoenix and she moved to the Champaign-Urbana area. A few times a month, she’d pick up the phone and see that her brother was calling before settling in for a long conversation. He was protective of her in a brotherly way, which gave her a feeling of comfort. That didn’t subside when Worix, who worked as a security guard, went to prison for seven years for shooting and injuring a man while trying to stop a robbery while on the job, a conviction that Walker sees as unjust.

Then, 11 years ago, Walker received news about her brother that again changed the course of her life.

That day, Worix had intervened in an altercation between two people at his apartment complex. Later, one of the men involved approached Worix with a gun and fired, killing him, along with another man involved in the earlier altercation before turning the gun on himself.

“For something like that to happen so instantly and so permanently, it really affected my life,” she said. “I was angry, I was hurt, I was sad, and I dealt with that for six years. I went through grieving and not really knowing how to direct that bad energy.”

Then, Walker attended an event with Moms Demand Action, and she realized the way she could direct that energy. She latched on quickly and took on the position of survivor lead, meaning she was in charge of supporting families of victims. She’d help them cope and deal with their trauma and connect them with services that could help them.

“I think I came to the conclusion that I was in need of being involved in something that would be in honor of Melvin,” she said. “Why don’t I have him anymore? I don’t have him anymore because of community gun violence. If this can happen to me and can happen to my family, it can happen to anybody. I would have never, ever in a million years thought that anything like that could ever happen to my family, and I just got to a point where I was searching for something.”

All the while, the former fashion model and saleswoman worked for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District as a case manager for people with sexually transmitted diseases.

Five months ago, she took on a newly created position at the Champaign-Urbana Trauma and Resilience Initiative, an organization funded by the Champaign County Mental Health Board and the Champaign County Community Coalition that supports those affected by community violence.

Now, she works full time supporting families affected by community violence in connecting them with the resources they need. She helps support them emotionally, spending time with and listening to grieving family members of victims, teaching them ways to cope and connecting them with professional counselors. She also helps them in practical ways, like helping them move if a family member was killed in their home. For that work, she’ll be awarded the Doris Hoskins Prestigious Community Service Award at Sunday’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Countywide Celebration.

“I’m finding that most of the time, they need someone additional to talk to, just to tell them to not lose hope,” Walker said. “That’s a lot of what I do. We really explore, ‘What do you have in the village right around you that’s free that you’re not even looking for or have thought about?’ We talk about exploring all of the things, all of the support that they might have never thought about as a support system for themselves.”

Her own trauma, of course, has never completely subsided. She still thinks about her brother’s death constantly, imagining the details of what happened more than 2,000 miles away. Something was stolen from her that day, she said.

But from that pain and trauma, she now has purpose.

“The beauty, if there is any beauty in any of this, I think that sometimes crises make you re-evaluate your life and how you live your life, and who to let in your life,” she said. “I think you begin to wisen up and say, ‘I can’t spend my time that way,’ or, ‘I don’t want to be like that,’ or, ‘That’s not the path that I choose for myself.’

“All of the wonderful families that I’ve met through their tragedies, it’s been a blessing to be able to meet,” she added. “I think that’s the most gratifying thing that I get out of it, is to feel like I’m making a difference when people are telling me that I have made a difference.”

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