The sound of gunfire in Milwaukee can shatter the peace and Camille Mays is no stranger to gun violence. She finds her own peace as she chimes in on her crystal bowls. The vibrations fill the room at the Earth Angel Studio. It is the sound of peace, the sound of healing and the sound of wellness. Mays will tell you it’s relaxing like the sound of running water.
Mays also finds peace walking along her northside street in Milwaukee, as she waves at neighbors, “I love my neighbors.” But Mays will also tell you the Sherman Park neighborhood needs more love. It’s not uncommon for her to hear gunshots and she says it is traumatizing when you hear them so close. A drive through her neighborhood, and you will see memorials for the victims of gun violence. Mays says no one will want to move in or invest in the neighborhood if there are memorials everywhere.
That planted a seed of an idea that started in 2015 around the time gun violence rose rapidly in Milwaukee. Her goal was to counter bullets with blossoms in an effort to bring life and hope to her community. Mays called it, “Peace Garden Project MKE.”
“It was a thought to offer flowers and plant them at the site of a memorial. That’s just a kind gesture I wanted to do for the families,” said Mays.
Her idea was to turn those temporary memorials into permanent gardens. The peace garden project made Mays a well-known community activist.
“Plants are healing. They really are. Gardening and getting your hands in the dirt and flowers can be known to make people happy. I call it environmental wellness,” Mays said.
Mays will tell you her activism was a fight to keep the violence from reaching her front door. She would often tell the mothers who lost sons and daughters, “I don’t understand and I’m sorry that this happened, and I hope I don’t ever understand.” As a Crimestoppers volunteer Mays works to prevent it.
Mays often worried about her own sons. When news of a shooting in the neighborhood happened, she would always call them to make sure they were okay. After one such incident, her son didn’t answer the phone. Prayers and peace gardens could not keep the repercussions of gun violence from Mays’ front door.
“I know when the police come to your house, it’s not good.,” Mays said. It’s almost like mentally I felt like if I didn’t let them in the house. I could stop whatever they were going to say or whatever had happened.”
Once again Mays buries her pain in plants. This time, however, it was in her own front yard in the form of a memorial garden for her 21-year-old son Darnell who was killed by people he knew.
“The truth of the matter is he knew them from elementary school, and they murdered him. Everybody always says, ‘What’s going to make it stop?’ I don’t know,” Mays said. “But I know the city needs a lot of love.”
Gardens instead of guns, flowers instead of fear Mays is determined to sew seeds of hope. After her son’s murder, she found it hard to continue doing the peace gardens. It was too painful of a reminder of why she started this project and it still happened to her. She believes something good will come out of this tragedy. These days Mays releases her anger and pain by playing her singing bowls and talking to people about the impact of gun violence. Mays uses the sounds from her crystal bowls to bring comfort and peace to others facing trauma and distress. She will tell you going through her own trauma, she now understands the healing part a little bit more.
Mays dreams of getting a bus to travel and offering others the sounds that soothe the soul. She dreams of playing her bowls for the Milwaukee Bucks or Brewers. Her saving grace is finding power in her purpose.
“I just hope that my story inspires people. That’s what motivates me. I’m not the only one, but this is my story,” Mays said. “I just didn’t want to be just another person. I wanted to leave my mark in the world and for it to mean something. That’s all.”