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Nobody’s Women? Tri-C says “they were ours” – Andrea Simakis

December 16, 2018

Nobody’s Women? Tri-C says “they were ours” – Andrea Simakis

Bill Cunion met the women who would inspire him to help change lives in a church in Mount Pleasant.

It wasn’t far from the house where one of Cleveland’s most notorious serial killers once lived.

A column I’d written had brought him there – “Gone and Forgotten: Where is the memorial for women murdered by Anthony Sowell?”

Nine years on, the lot on Imperial Avenue where Sowell buried his 11 victims is mostly empty, aside from some trees and a battered sign on the ground reading, “Gone But Not Forgotten.”

This haunted Bill, and his wife Jesse. He emailed me. How could they help?

That’s when I learned that Bill is Associate Dean of Liberal Arts at Cuyahoga Community College’s Eastern Campus.

And that five of Sowell’s victims had, at one time or another, been enrolled at Tri-C.

Although none had earned diplomas, “they were interested in making something more of their lives, just like thousands of other Tri-C students,” he told me.

“Andrea,” he said, “some of them were ours.”

It was the first time I’d heard someone other than a family member claim any of the women. Loud public pronouncements from city and state leaders about plans to honor them had given way to the deafening silence of indifference. Promises were broken. Fundraising stalled. Why remember throwaways?

Some of them were ours.

In July, when Bill and Jesse visited Zion Hill Baptist Church on Kinsman Road, blocks from the old Sowell place, they were greeted by the Rev. Jimmy Gates, sometime spokesman and 24-7 therapist, pastor and friend to the family of survivors that has formed in the years since the bodies were unearthed in 2009.

Inside was Joann Moore, her nimbus of fiery red hair matched by her moxie. Joann’s sister, Janice Webb, used to call their 96-year-old grandmother at least once a day, just to make her laugh. Even Janice’s struggles with addiction didn’t stop those calls. Then she disappeared and the phone quit ringing. “Broke my grandmother’s heart,” Joann said.

Debbie Williams was there too, along with 15-year-old Christen. Sowell killed Christen’s mother, Telacia Fortson, when Christen was just 6. Debbie adopted him and is also caring for Christen’s sister, 12-year-old Talia, and four other children. “I’m like the old lady in the shoe,” Debbie said.

When he was 8, Christen came up with a name for the memorial to go with the architect’s renderings: Garden of Eleven Angels. That no garden ever materialized has taught him hard lessons. “Everybody’s all talk,” he tells Debbie. “Nobody ever does anything.”

Kyana Hunt recalled searching abandoned buildings from 110th to 123rd streets after her mother, Nancy Cobbs, went missing. Police wouldn’t do it, so she played cop herself.

They told more stories and laughed and cried. Joann passed out tissues. She’s never without them, and a portable oxygen tank for her COPD.

Bill asked how they wanted their loved ones to be remembered. They didn’t hesitate. They wanted a memorial, yes, but even more than that, they hoped something positive could come from so much pain. A way to help women like those they’d lost improve themselves and take care of their families.

He warned he could make no promises. He knew they’d been disappointed so many times before but . . .“I’ve been talking to our Foundation [at Tri-C] about setting up some kind of modest scholarship for women in this neighborhood,” Bill said. “Something to signal that we care about these women who reached out to us at one point, and we care about the women who are here still.”

Five months later – last Thursday, in fact – Bill took the podium at Tri-C’s Jerry Sue Thornton Center. Gathered before him were 134 happy graduates of the Women in Transition Program. Now in its 40th year, the free, eight-week classes and workshops for women of all ages and backgrounds has helped ignite – and in many cases, reignite – the careers of thousands.

Among the crowd was a small cluster of invited guests. Kyana couldn’t get off work, but there were Joann, Debbie and some of their kids, including Christen, slumped in a chair, hiding under a baseball cap, earbuds sprouting from his head.

“In the midst of our joy let’s take a few minutes to remember those who could not make it here today, their lives cut short by drugs and violence,” said Bill. “I’d like to talk about 11 such women in particular . . .”

Christen sat up a little straighter.

“I didn’t know these women, but I have been blessed to get to know some of their families, many of whom are with us today,” Bill continued. “Because I didn’t know them, I can’t say whether they all looked to Tri-C as their bridge to a better future. But I do know that five of them did.

“I know that Kim Smith registered at the Enrollment Center at the Metro Campus.

“I know that Tishana Culver and Nancy Cobbs took GED prep classes here.

“I know that Telacia Fortson applied to the Early Childhood Education program.

“And I know that Janice Webb took a full course load in fall of 1997.

“I don’t know whether Tonia Carmichael, Amelda Hunter, Crystal Dozier, Michelle Mason, Leshanda Long, or Diane Turner ever set foot on any of our campuses, but I do know that they were loved . . .” Bill said, his voice breaking, “and valued and important to our community. This moment to honor them is long overdue.”

Books written about the crimes echo a common theme, about how the 11 women were overlooked and forgotten, one even carrying the title, “Nobody’s Women.”

“Today we begin to correct that record,” Bill said. “They were not ‘nobody’s women’ – they belonged to these families, to this community, and to this College. They are ours.”

Joann twisted the valve on her tank to increase the oxygen flow and reached for her stash of tissues.

“I am so pleased to announce the Eleven Angels Scholarships, awards of up to $1,000 each for the 2019-2020 academic year, in memory of those 11 women,” Bill said.

At about $100 a credit hour, that could translate into nearly a semester of classes for 11 Tri-C students, with a preference for those from the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. As Bill will tell you, sometimes, the margin between students continuing in school and dropping out comes down to them being a few hundred dollars short for tuition. An extra grand could make all the difference.

The families were asked to stand and be recognized. Amidst the robust applause, Christen shot to his feet, unable to suppress a proud smile. He was thinking about his Mom and the others.

We all were.

Today, they are ours.

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How to donate

Those wishing to make a donation to the Eleven Angels Scholarship by mail can send to: Tri-C Foundation, 700 Carnegie Ave. Cleveland, Ohio 44115. Please write Eleven Angels Scholarship in the check’s memo line. Those wishing to donate online can go to: www.tri-c.edu/donate. Please select “Eleven Angels Scholarship” from a drop down menu.

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