In the back of Cecilia Mannion’s SUV is a storage cart with wheels and three opaque plastic drawers.
Inside the drawers she keeps gauze, medical tape, bandages, saline water and other wound care supplies.
Gunshot victims in Chicago are regularly sent home from hospitals without the supplies they need to properly care for their injuries. So Mannion travels around with her mobile medical supply cabinet, a sad symbol of the city’s inability to deal with violence and its aftermath.
“These people, they don’t have money for bandages,” Mannion said of survivors whose bodies have been torn by bullets. “Walkers, crutches, canes, bath chairs. I look for that all by myself, by donations or go find it cheap, and I pay for it. Our victims need it now. I can’t sit and wait for somebody.”
Mannion is part of a growing army of former gang members in Chicago working to prevent violence. Some try to intervene in gang conflicts to stop retaliation. Others, like Mannion, seek to stop the cycle by tending to the physical, mental and emotional needs of victims and their families.
It’s an extension of a model that’s been around for years, but it’s getting a surge of government support. In 2022 the city of Chicago allocated nearly $85 million to the efforts. The state of Illinois pledged $150 million in 2021.
As the city and state step up investments in street level anti-violence work, WBEZ spent one year shadowing Mannion, tracking her successes, failures and frustrations, and tracing the fault lines in American society, which are so evident where gun violence is the worst.
“I have to bury a child”
If the victim is killed, her attention turns to the family. She sits with devastated wives at the hospital, arranges therapy for withdrawn children dealing with a violent murder, helps fathers find ways to pay for their children’s funerals and helps families pick out burial plots.
That was her task last June as she drove her workhorse SUV to Resurrection Catholic Cemetery in the southwestern suburb of Justice, Ill., to meet with the family of Vincent Hernandez.
Hernandez had been shot to death just two days earlier. The sudden death of the 39-year-old father left his family staggered.
The grief alone is too much to bear. But then there’s the fact that a sudden violent death demands family members figure out a litany of logistics.
Mannion was there to help steady them.
She stayed overnight with Hernandez’s mom at the hospital the night he died. She helped plan the funeral. At the cemetery she helps them pick out a burial plot and figure out how they’re going to pay for it all.
She works with them to set up a GoFundMe page and starts tapping into her contacts. She thinks Catholic Charities is their best bet for help with burial costs because of the family’s churchgoing history.
Outside of the cemetery office, Hernandez’s mom, Debbie Marquez, starts to feel overwhelmed. Her voice cracks as she talks, tears filling her eyes.
“This cemetery is my family’s cemetery. And now I’ll be putting my son here before I put myself here,” Marquez said. “Before my children bury me, I have to bury a child.”
Mannion places a comforting hand on Marquez’s back.
“[Mannion] has been a rock,” Vincent’s sister Bernadette Hernandez said. “She was a rock to my mom, just seeing her come out to the hospital late at night, and then staying with my mom the whole time. I’m grateful. So she’s been helping us out. She’s been giving us any resources she can, any support she can. She’s said she’s 24 hours.”
“I see what a lot of these parents go through”
There’s a strange sort of expertise Mannion has gained doing this work. She has methods of getting updates on patients even when the hospital isn’t allowing any visitors inside, she knows the process for identifying a body at the morgue, which cemeteries have the cheapest plots, which funeral homes will ship a body back to Mexico.
She has also found ways to save money on funeral costs, which is where her manual button maker comes in.
On a chilly afternoon, Mannion is sitting at her kitchen table in a rented house near Midway International Airport, pressing pictures of a sad-eyed man with long hair into homemade buttons.
The man on the buttons is Renee Castillo. Castillo was a neighborhood fixture in Little Village with a penchant for long late night walks. He was on one of those walks when someone shot him multiple times.
“31, fighting cancer, and they shot him,” Mannion said.
Mannion sat with his mother and brother in their home the day after the shooting as they talked about Renee’s life and helped with funeral arrangements.
The buttons are cheaper than prayer cards. Mannion uses her own ink, printer and button maker to make the buttons and gives them for free to the grieving family. For those who can afford it she asks them to help pay for more button-making supplies she can use for the next family.
One of the buttons of Castillo will stay at CeCi’s house. She keeps a memento of every victim displayed in her home. A promise not to forget the tragedy even after most everyone besides immediate family has moved on.
The scale of loss from Chicago gun violence feels almost suffocating inside Mannion’s house, surrounded by mementos of the dead. Each one marks not just the end of a life, but a violent end. Each mini-memorial is proof of a life taken too soon.
Mannion has been shot herself before. And her brother was murdered by a rival gang.
Her mother was devastated by her brother’s killing. Didn’t know what to do or how to cope. It’s part of what motivates Mannion.
“I saw what my mom went through. I see what a lot of these parents go through. And I would have liked it back then if I knew there was somebody out there to give that support for my mom,” Mannion said.
“Where’s the money?”
The work takes a toll. Mannion struggles with heart issues her doctor believes are exacerbated by the stress and trauma of her work. The $3,000 or so a month she makes after taxes is barely enough to cover her bills, and doesn’t feel like nearly enough considering the hours she works, and the pressure she is under.
“Why would you want to go do violence prevention work if you can go to a store and get paid more money?” Mannion said. “I do it because that’s my calling”
Community-based violence intervention has seen a swell of public support in recent years. The city, county, state and federal governments have all pledged millions of dollars to the effort.
President Joe Biden talked up “the need to support community violence intervention” at a 2021 event at the White House.
“These are local programs that utilize trusted messengers and community members and leaders to work directly with people who are most likely to commit gun crimes or become victims of gun crimes,” Biden said.
Mannion said it is great to see the influx of public dollars, but there still isn’t nearly enough to go around.
The Chicago Police Department’s 10th District, which covers most of Little Village, where Mannion grew up and where she works now, recorded more than 200 shootings and nearly 50 murders in 2022. It’s a decrease compared to the two preceding years. But it still means hundreds of people in desperate need of help.
Money, or the lack of it, hangs over so much of what Mannion does. The families she helps never have enough. Not enough to move, not enough to pay for medical care, not enough to afford funerals.
“Oh hell yeah, everybody’s talking about [anti-violence work], but where’s the money? Where is it?” Mannion asked incredulously. “I think the president needs to know it’s more than just hiring an outreach worker and putting them out there or hiring a victim advocate and putting them out there.”
Editor’s Note: After the majority of the reporting for this story was complete, WBEZ hired Mannion as a consultant for Season 5 of the Motive podcast.