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Ex-Convict Spearheads Project to Replace Makeshift Shrines for Murder Victims with Memorial Trees

Stefan Oliva

Two Syracuse men have teamed up for a new way to honor gun violence victims. Founder of the I Apologize Foundation Rashawn Sullivan and Onondaga Earth Corps assistant Saptarshi Lahiri hope to plant a tree for each person killed by bullets on the city’s south side.  The project might be unexpected given Sullivan’s dark past.  

"I have lived a life of violence.  I actually had ended a young man's life before.  When I came back out,  I noticed a lot of memorial sites  had liquor bottles and alot of negative attributes.   I wanted to change the narrative." 

Sullivan served 17 years in prison for a 1997 murder.  He was released on probation in 2015.

Lahiri with the Earth Corps says trees can be healing.

"The inner city has the least amount of tree canopy.  It's been found that the more trees you have in a space, that leads to greater tranquility and better social relations, and we want to do that for the south side community," Lahiri said.

"This is a way to shift the narrative, and put some life on the situation because trees symbolize growth," Sullivan said.

Lahiri says most makeshift memorial sites eventually become unsightly and don't do the victims justice.

"You'll see memorial candles, a bunch of debris, random personal memoriabilia, which slowly decays over time.  Basically, it becomes a pile of trash."

Credit Stefan Oliva / WAER News

Sullivan hopes others impacted by gun violence will decide to join the effort.  

"What I'm doing  now is contacting all the family members who have lost loved ones.  Once I get all their information, I'll see the ones who actually want to have a tree planted or a memorial bench in that person's name."

Lahiri actually hopes people reach out to them when they hear about the project.

"Growth is a central metaphor for this project...growth and regeneration of the community.  Trees are the best metaphor for that.”            

Three trees will be planted in different parts of the Southside neighborhood Saturday starting at 10 a.m. at the corner of West Newell and Cannon Streets.  The trees have been donated by Chuck Hafner's Garden Center and the Atlantic States Legal Foundation.  Sullivan and Lahiri hope memorial can emulate the Butterfly garden near Onondaga Lake Park.  They’re seeking grants to make the project a reality.