Using grief and loss to bring a community together

Posted 4/10/19

Rhonda Valentine and Jeanette Drake never anticipated when they said goodbye to their daughters on Halloween Eve it would be for the final time.

The two girls who encouraged others to do well, and …

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Using grief and loss to bring a community together


Rhonda Valentine and Jeanette Drake never anticipated when they said goodbye to their daughters on Halloween Eve it would be for the final time.

The two girls who encouraged others to do well, and fought to make the City of Newburgh a better place ended up the innocent victims of a senseless crime.

On October 30 2016 Valentine and Drake each received a panicked call from family members that there was a shooting at a Halloween party, and it might be their daughters.

Jeanette Drake hung up with her daughter ten minutes earlier when she received a call from her niece running through the crowds to find her cousin Tabitha.

Drake’s niece watched as her cousin’s armed dropped down on the side of the stretcher carried into an ambulance with Drake’s name tattooed on it.

“I got in the car and drove around in between police cars, when I got to the hospital there were hundreds of people standing outside,” said Drake. “People were just staring at you, it was just so quiet. I had to stay there and wait until 2:45 a.m. they told me she was gone.”

Valentine remembers the night very differently, she was coming home from a party and didn’t know her daughter had plans to go out.

“My son walked into the room and said ‘Mom get up we have to go Omani got shot’. I immediately fell to my knees and started praying,” said Valentine

When Valentine arrived at the hospital with her family Omani was still fighting for her life.

“She had this big bandage on her head and she was laying there,” said Valentine. “I was talking with her pleading and begging her to stay, but as I was talking a tear rolled down her eye and I knew she couldn’t fight no more.”

Omani Free passed away at 3:34 a.m. and Tabitha Cruz passed away at 2:30 a.m. The tragedy not only sent the two mothers into deep grief and mourning, but it sent the community into mourning.

The two girls were motivators among their friends to get people to do good in school, pass their classes, and make changes in the city to lower the crime rates. Three weeks before her death, Tabitha led a march through the city demanding for more lights and cameras to make the streets safer.

Just that night Omani told a girl to turn around and go back home, because she was too young, potentially saving her life.

In the days following the shooting there was a memorial walk for the girls. Drake opened her doors to her house to find over a hundred people standing outside her door.

“I remember on that walk I was very nervous,” said Drake. “One side of the city was standing on one side of the street and the others on the other side, then a kid walked over as if to put aside the tension for one night. We walked down Mill Street to Broadway all together singing ‘Lean on Me’. It was incredible, these 18 year old guys didn’t have to put on this face of who they were, they all just set that aside and walked together.”

This was just one of the first times the city came together mourning the death of the two girls. Drake and Valentine are determined to make a difference to help the children that are struggling, so that another parent in the City of Newburgh doesn’t have to feel the pain of burying their child.

Drake and Valentine honored their daughter’s legacies by becoming advocates for crime victims in the City of Newburgh. When Drake went to watch the sentencing of her daughter’s murderer, she found a flyer sitting next to her on a bench for Crime Victims week in Orange County.

“I remember I didn’t want to go to court that day, but there was something there that told me I needed to be there,” said Drake. “That year was the worst homicide rate in the city, I thought it was insane if we were the murder capital of New York State why wasn’t something happening here for Crime Victim’s week.”

Drake went to City Council to ask for permission to hold a celebration for the week in the City of Newburgh, and made boards with Habitat for Humanity for residents to put pictures of their loved ones at a vigil on Broadway.

Each year Drake and Valentine save the boards, unfortunately every year they continue to see more names and faces of victims, even with decreasing crime rates.

The two also organize Tabby and Omani every year in August around the girls birthday to celebrate who the girls were and bring the community together around all of their favorite things.

“A lot of times parents wait for their kids to act up to take action, at 12 years old they have their minds made up on what they’re going to do,” said Valentine. “When you’re young you need guidance and to be listened to. It’s sad but there are a lot of kids in this city without that guidance, it takes a village to raise these kids. If someone had been there for the young man who did this maybe our daughters would still be here.”

This week is Crime Victims week. Boards will be available for viewing for the next two weeks in the lot on Broadway between Lander St and Johnston St.


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