Monday, December 28, 2020

One Mother Finds Purpose Over Pain After Loss

Tonya Burch holds a portrait of her beloved son, Deontae Smith, 19, murdered on Aug. 1, 2009. She has launched an organization in his memory, vowing to mentor and tutor other young people in her Chicago neighborhood.
By Jules Banks 

Tonya Burch, a cosmetology instructor, has been a part of the Englewood community since she was 8 years old, when her family moved up to Chicago from Greenwood, Mississippi. Since then, Burch has been hard at work. She has raised two sons, helped rear several grandchildren, gone through two schools to become a cosmetology instructor, and, most recently, has started an organization in honor of her late son Deontae Smith. 

The organization, dubbed, “Taking Back our Community in Honor of Deontae Smith,” officially began around 2010, a year after her younger son’s murder. 



"They were saying two people there got shot, a girl and a boy. ...My mind just went. “They say I fainted a couple times, the whole nine yards."

-Tonya Burch, upon hearing news her son had been slain 



"Its name is in honor of my son who was killed, because when he died, everyone was always saying what he had gave them, what he had done for them,” explained Burch. 

Burch is described as a “protector” by her cousin and Chicago police officer, Karen Brandt, who also noted that Burch is “petite, with the heart of a giant.” 

“I have known Tonya for over 30 years,” Brandt said. “She’s ambitious, a hard worker, a motivator and results oriented. If she wants it done, with or without your help, it's going to get done.”

Brandt is also vice president of Burch’s organization, which focuses on mentoring and tutoring children in the Englewood community. Smith described her cousin’s deceased son as “a very respectful young man,” adding, “Tonya raised her boys to be respectful to all.” 

“He was a homebody,” she added. “I don’t care what time or day or night I came to visit, he was always home.” 

Deontae Smith
Smith was the victim of a still unsolved murder at a block party on Aug. 1, 2009. Eleven years later, Burch still remembers the day in painful detail: She had been working overtime, and Deontae, 19, had been at home all day. Her approached her about the party right before he was heading out to leave.

“Block party this late?” Burch recalls asking. Smith reassured his mother that he wouldn’t be there long, as he was going to a movie afterwards with his girlfriend. She then recalled her joking to her son, saying, “When you get ready to go, come back and pick me up.” 

That was the last time they spoke. 

Burch said she then received several calls from friends and family that her son had been shot at the block party, and after some frantic searching, made her way to the intersection of 60th and Green Streets, the location of the crime. 

“They were saying two people there got shot, a girl and a boy,” said Burch.

According to Burch, the other shooting victim went to the hospital, but Smith was dead at the scene.

“My mind just went,” she said. “They say I fainted a couple times, the whole nine yards.” 

Since her son’s death, Burch has been hard at work at two different things: finding Deontae’s murderer and organizing different events and charity efforts for her community through her organization. 

To locate the murderer, Burch has employed many tactics, and as of 2020, she still hasn’t slowed down.

“I still go and pass out flyers,” she said. 

Deontae Smith's daughter holds a portrait
 of her father.
Burch also had three billboards put up for “about a year,” detailing the events of Smith’s death and asking for information. The billboards, which have since been taken down, stood at the intersections of 61st and Maine Streets, 55th and Halsted Streets, and 62nd and Morgan Streets. She described her experience with Chicago police as “frustrating,” and said that she has been passed on to four different detectives since Smith’s case began.

Still, it has not hampered Burch’s work. Her organization does an array of annual events for Englewood children, such as sponsoring children to go to sports camps during the summer, tutoring, gift sponsorship and meet-and-greets with Santa during the holidays.

“I feel it’s an excellent organization with a great purpose,” said Patricia Nichols, friend of Burch’s and a Chicago resident. “When I see the smiles on the children's faces after receiving their gift, it makes a difference. If it were not for Tonya, some of the children wouldn't have a Christmas at all.”

Nichols met Burch when Burch attended her support group, Parents of Murdered Children. 

Burch said that although she started out just paying for individual kids’ activities out of her own pocket, she always knew she wanted to continue giving. 

 “I didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning. I was just helping people, you know?” said Burch. “A lot of these kids these days don’t get attention. They just need the love and support. A lot of them aren’t getting it at home, so that’s why they reach out to other people.

Burch said that all of her charity work will always be in honor of her son, who planted the seeds for what would one day be Burch’s organization. 

Deontae "used to volunteer with the park district when he was too old to go to camp anymore. So he would go back and tutor and help the kids in the park,” she said. “I kind of fed off of what they were telling me he was doing and what he did. I wanted to keep it going.” 

A Chicago billboard advertises a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Deontae Smith's killer. (Photos: Provided by Family)