By Margaret Sponholz
In Milwaukee, it’s not unusual to see empty glass bottles lying in the streets. Sometimes bottles are even set up outside intentionally in memory of loved ones.
Camille Mays was motivated to start her business, the Peace Garden Project, after noticing how children in Milwaukee have to play around makeshift memorials decorated with beer bottles and teddy bears. She wanted to change the look of the city and beautify it through landscaping. Mays replaces the old memorials with flowers when the victim’s family contacts her and requests it. Families choose the color of the flowers they want planted and Mays then purchases them and designs the memorial.
“I can’t come up with a design until I see the tree,” said Mays.
When Mays plants the flowers, she asks that the families help her. She wants to encourage gardening and landscaping in the community, and hopes that planting the memorial will spark an interest. Mays will also help with maintaining the memorial, but asks families to participate in that as well.
After the memorial is finished, families aren’t supposed to add anything personal to it. Plaques or personal items will be removed. Mays’ goal is for the garden to just look like landscaping.
“The family will know it’s a memorial, but the community won’t know,” said Mays. “We don’t want the streets looking like cemeteries.”
While Mays enjoys the positive responses she gets from victims’ families, her main goal is not to celebrate the person that died, but to beautify the community.
“I want for people to understand that I respect and honor the families, but it’s really about the community, and the way our community looks with all the memorials in it,” Mays said.
The first memorial Mays created was in memory of Shavonta Johnson and is located at the intersection of 39th and Locust Street. Mays started out by purchasing most of her supplies through donations. Since then, she received a grant and is applying for more. She hopes to establish the Peace Garden Project as a non-profit organization by the end of the year.
Mays has received an overwhelming amount of requests for memorials over the past year. The most recent memorial she completed was in memory of siblings Jahara Kennedy and Rahkei Washington.
Kennedy was shot in January of 2015 at a party at the Days Inn, and Washington was shot in the passenger seat of a car in June of 2015.
Their mother traveled to Milwaukee from Phoenix, Arizona to work on the memorial, which is located on 109th and Jonen street.
“That story really bothered me because I have a 22-year-old son and an 18-year-old son, and I could not imagine what would happen if I lost both of them in a five-month time frame,” said Mays.
Mays is currently working on a garden on 45th and Wright Street for Ules Burke.