After years of hardship, mother of Newark schoolyard slayings victim finds comfort in charity

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on April 02, 2015

Shalga Hightower in the park behind the Mount Vernon school where her daughter was killed in 2007. Hightower has started a non-profit to help families deal with urban gun violence.

 

NEWARK — In the months after Shalga Hightower's daughter Iofemi was murdered in a schoolyard behind Mt. Vernon Elementary School, she rarely, if ever, found herself alone.

The brutal 2007 incident, in which six men stabbed and shot the 20-year-old and three friends execution-style, garnered national attention, and Hightower and her two children were surrounded by friends, neighbors and local leaders, all pledging their support.

The outcry, however, was not to last.

In the years since, Hightower and her twin children, Jasmine and Jamar, have suffered through a number of hardships, including unemployment and homelessness. She often reached out for help, she said, but the steady stream of television camera lights and elected officials pledging their support seemed to have dried up.

"After the marching and the rally and protests, the family is left there to fend for themselves," she said.

Today, however, she is committed to making sure other families do not have to do the same.

In October, her organization "Iofemi: A Gift of Love" officially received approval as a non-profit from the federal government. Since then, she has been working to form support groups for mothers who have lost their children to urban gun violence, establish scholarships, assist with funeral costs and promote other initiatives to help survivors of violent crimes.

"I just want to bring awareness to the people of the aftermath when something like this happens. Not just the emotional part, it's the financial hardship, everything," she said.

It is an experience she knows first-hand.

Six men were arrested in the brutal slayings, which killed Iofemi Hightower, Dashon Harvey and Terrance Aeriel. The fourth victim, Natasha Aerial, managed to survive despite being sexually assaulted and having her throat slashed.

All the defendants are currently serving prison terms ranging from 30 years to life, though the road to their convictions lasted for years. Hightower was present for nearly every hearing, driven by what she called a commitment to see that justice was done.

But the long days in the courtroom, filled with gut-wrenching testimony and grisly details of the crime, took their toll.

Aside from the emotional trauma, she was often pulled away from her job at a home health aide service in West Orange, and she was eventually fired. Bills piled up, and she, Jasmine and Jamar were evicted from their Irvington home.

On two separate occasions they spent months living apart, sleeping anywhere they could find a warm bed. Hightower bounced mostly between friends' couches and spare rooms, but also briefly called a YMCA and a local shelter home.

At one point, she was treated for what she called a nervous breakdown.

"It was rough, it was really hard. A lot of people weren't aware because I didn't go around blasting it out there," she said.

Today, Hightower is back on her feet, with a roof over her head and her focus squarely on ensuring her story is not repeated.

Charmil Davis, a close friend of Hightower's whose son became a victim of gun violence in Newark last year, said she was proud of the progress Hightower has made.

"I tell her all the time, she was lost. Through herself and me, we draw strength off of one another," Davis said.

Davis is currently producing a documentary on the shootings, entitled "Tragedy, Heartbreak and Courage: Schoolyard Slayings" that has allowed her to see her friend's story up close.

"I think Shalga has come a very, very long way. She's strong. She's ready," she said.

Though Hightower's struggles over the last seven years made the process a lengthy one, she said the founding of the "Iofemi: A Gift of Love" is the culmination of a mission began before her first tears had even dried.

"I got the idea when it happened," she said. "I said right then that my daughter's legacy was going to live on. Her death was not going to be in vain. She was not going to be another statistic of a child that was murdered in the city of Newark."

For more information on Iofemi: A Gift of Love, visit its website at igiftoflove.com.

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