Erica McKinney recalled the pain of hearing the names of the Orr Academy High School Class of 2013 as she sat among friends and family on graduation day this June.
"Then they called my family to the stage and handed us D.J.'s high school diploma," said Erica McKinney, speaking to hundreds of family members and loved ones of Cook County murder victims at a memorial ceremony on Saturday at the UIC Forum.
"We have all been robbed of the life of our loved ones," Erica McKinney said to the crowd, as she shared her brother's story. "Let's continue to live their lives through our own."
The 24th Annual Victim Memorial Ceremony, coordinated by the State's Attorney's Victim Witness Assistance Unit, brought families from all over the county together to honor victims of homicide and reckless homicide and serve as a reminder that they are not alone.
The ceremony included an address by State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, a photo montage, personal reflections and performances by Salem Baptist Church of Chicago praise dancers and singer Shannon Harris.
"We hear so much about the offenders, the people who committed these crimes … and very little is focused on you, the victims, and what you have to endure," Alvarez said.
Gwen Ford-Nino, whose daughter Brandy Ford was stabbed to death in her Albany Park home in 2007, said coming to the memorial ceremony each year helps her reflect on her daughter's death.
"When I come and see this picture [it's] just a reminder of that all-American girl I raised," Ford-Nino said, standing in front of a photo of her smiling daughter with an American flag across her chest. "To lose a daughter — that's a big impact in your life."
Around 1,800 photos of victims from the past few decades were on display at the forum on Saturday, according to Tara Dabney, deputy director of the victim witness assistance unit. And each year, more photos are added to the collection, Dabney said.
"Every life that is represented here today is a treasure," Alvarez said. "While you may have found forgiveness in your heart, please do not lose your sense of outrage over the senseless loss of life … [and] remind our fellow citizens that this hatred and this violence that plagues our communities is stealing all of our loved ones and destroying all of our families."
Following the ceremony, lunch and support groups in English and Spanish were made available to families by the victim witness assistance unit.