Annette Nance-Holt and Ronald Holt
by Esther Kang
PURPOSE OVER PAIN
On a blustery, steely gray morning in November, Ronald Holt awoke in his Bronzeville home and turned on the news. Another Chicago teen had been killed—one of more than 40 school-age children murdered in the city since January. As Holt, 48, watched footage of the boy’s father mourning, he sighed, “Brother, I know what you’re going through.”
And then, as he does after any violent death of a child in the city, Holt, a Chicago police officer, jotted down the victim’s name and began making some calls to try to reach the family.
In May 2007, Holt and his ex-wife Annette Nance-Holt (they split amicably in 2002) lost their 16-year-old son, Blair, who was shot while riding a CTA bus from school. The assailant, also 16 at the time, was a Gangster Disciple who was aiming for a rival gang member. Blair, a Julian High School student who was on his way to help out at his grandparents’ store in Roseland, died while shielding a friend from the gunfire. (In July 2009, Blair’s killer received a sentence of 100 years in prison.)
Later that year, after many months of grieving and attending support groups, the Holts formed Purpose Over Pain, an organization made up of parents of gun victims that advocates for stronger commonsense gun laws, encourages greater communication between parents and their children, and helps console parents who have lost a child through violence.
“I decided there’s no way we’re going to see other parents go through this,” says Nance-Holt, 45, a Chicago Fire Department captain. “I’ve heard pain is passion, and we will keep doing this work because Blair would want us to. We need to not let our son die in vain.”
Despite diminished public support for stricter gun-control laws (see “In Their Sights,” page 46), the Holts have relentlessly pursued their mission. They have lobbied for stronger state gun laws, as well as for the Blair Holt’s Firearm Licensing and Record of Sale Act of 2009; the bill was introduced by Congressman Bobby Rush and is currently sitting in a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. And each time an innocent child is killed in the city, the Holts reach out to the parents, referring them to local support groups and even helping with funeral costs and other basic needs.
“When this tragedy first happens to you, the grief and the pain is just so overwhelming that you’re just trying to breathe in and out,” says Nance-Holt, who credits the Chicago area chapter of Parents of Murdered Children with helping her cope. “Talking to other parents in this situation helped me know that I’m not losing it.”
Holt, the president of Purpose Over Pain and a motivational speaker, emphasizes the importance of what he calls “parent-child connectedness.” Parents, he says, need to get more involved in their kids’ lives. “When a child winds up an offender, nine times out of ten that child was a product of a dysfunctional home life and parents who don’t talk or listen to them,” he says. “That’s why these teens subscribe to the pseudo-family, which is often nothing more than a street gang.”
Father Michael Pfleger, the pastor of St. Sabina Church in Chicago (where Nance-Holt is a parishioner), commends the Holts’ arduous labor of love. “Even when it’s so traumatically difficult to speak about their tragedy, they don’t stop,” says Pfleger, who often connects victims’ families with the Holts. “They have the courage and the faith to work through their pain and care for others.”
Photograph by Katrina Wittkamp