By Conor McCue

DENVER (CBS4) – A mother whose son died from gun violence is hopeful a new project in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood can help start the healing, as well as open people’s eyes to a growing problem.

According to a report from Denver Public Health, an estimated 700 young people are directly affected by gun violence every year in the city. Guns are also a leading cause of death among Denver youth, with 74 total deaths between 2012 and 2019, the report found.

Tuwanna O’Neal’s son, La’Zic Abraham, was shot and killed near Barney L. Ford Park in Montbello on January 26, 2021. Months later, O’Neal said she still doesn’t know who killed the 16-year-old or why.

La’Zic Abraham (credit: Tuwanna O’Neal)

“It’s really tough to wake up and not have a child that you’ve had your whole life,” O’Neal said.

Abraham was described as a loyal teen and an avid reader, with dreams of being an architectural engineer. O’Neal said before La’Zic’s death he had been spending time with the wrong crowd.

“The same kids that he called his brothers actually left him at the park to die,” O’Neal said.

Tuwanna O’Neal (credit: CBS)

This Saturday, a group of local organizations will join together to honor Abraham and many other victims for the Mending Roots Forest Project. The project will honor youth who have lost their lives to gun violence by planting up to 200 trees to create a living memorial called the Mending Roots Forest in Northeast Park Hill.

“I know a lot of these kids that are dying out here and I don’t have a lot of emotion left in me,” said Jason McBride, who works with the McBride Impact and the Struggle of Love Foundation. “It’s a hard thing to deal with because these are just babies a lot of times. We’ve had 13, 14, 15-year-old kids.”

Jason McBride (credit: CBS)

The groups involved in the project include the McBride Impact, Struggle of Love Foundation, Gang Rescue and Support Project (GRASP), Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver (GRID), and the Holleran Group. Westside Investment Partners, Inc., which now owns the property, has been involved with planning as well.

Organizers planted the first tree on the site last year. On Sunday, they’ll plant many more birch, poplar, and elm trees, as well as others, to pay tribute to the tree-related street names in the Park Hill neighborhood.

“They’re going to reflect this neighborhood, and they’re going to reflect the young people that have died here,” he said.

(credit: CBS)

Long term, McBride hopes the forest will be a visual reminder of the city’s growing problem, as well as a place for families and community members to heal.

“This is something that these families can come to years from now and identify the tree with their young person and sit under it, nurture it, just be a part of that,” McBride said.

For O’Neal, the location is even more personal. Several summers ago, Park Hill Golf Course was where La’Zic would go to get fresh air and read books. Now, his place of solace will become her place of healing.

“We can go and see life because the park where he died, it’s hard for me to go over there,” O’Neal said.

“Being a part of this tree project is going to be a healing process for us all.”

The families and community groups will be meet at Park Hill Golf Course at 9 a.m. Saturday, and they still need a lot of volunteers to plant the trees. Anyone interested can simply show up.

If you want to learn more about the project, visit mendingrootsforest.com.

Conor McCue