By Journalist Ms. Jones
NEWBURGH – On Sunday, August 14th community members came to the Newburgh Armory Unity Center to remember teenagers Omani Free and Tabitha “Tabby” Cruz. Both were murdered at a Halloween Party on Broadway on October 30, 2016.
“She had went to a party and was at the party enjoying herself… A guy had came in. He had got in it with somebody by the DJ booth and… some people in the party… knocked him down… and he got up and he started shooting… My daughter ended up getting shot. She had went to the hospital where she had died a few hours later…She had got shot in the head… I was there when she passed away,” said Rhonda Valentine-Free, mother of Omani Free, who helps organize the event for their birthdays. “Omani’s birthday…hers is the 14th. She was 18. She would have been 24…. Tabitha’s is… the 15th… They like to have fun… and why not have fun with the community. So, we organized Omani and Tabby Day. This is our fifth year doing it… One year we didn’t do it because of COVID.”
Tabby had been away at college in Pittsburgh, PA. She was studying to be a veterinarian. She came home to help with a family matter and went to the Halloween Party.
“Rhonda and I got together I want to say within a week… We knew of each other, but not each other. We started this day here to celebrate the lives of Omani and Tabby and to bring the community together to get to know each other and to come together instead of shooting at each other. And we do this every single year and it’s free to everybody. We fundraise throughout the year to try to get funding for it. And the community really comes together for it… Every year on October 30 we do a Gun Violence Walk from DuPont… that’s where we live… all the way down Broadway where the shooting happened and we have at least 100 people show up for that every single year,” said Jeannette Drake, mother of Tabitha Cruz.
Councilman Omari Shakur came out to support the event. He can relate. He knows what it is like to lose a child.
“That happened on the same day my son was murdered… Same day, different year,” said Councilman Shakur who is still grieving over the loss of his son. “We can’t bring our babies back. But, we can save the rest of the babies… We tell the parents to become more involved in the school activities, the recreational activities, the everyday activities. But make sure all the children in our community are our children. Not just some children… but all the children.”
The community enjoyed free hot dogs, hamburgers, quesadillas, shish kabobs, empanadas, and cotton candy. The Salvation Army gave away free ice cream.
“[It’s important that we came to this event because] we want to support the family, the two girls that passed away, and it’s a good way to build relationships and just to check in with the community and see how they’re doing,” said Captain Kelly Ross, the pastor of the Salvation Army, who debunked the myth that the Salvation Army just provides inexpensive clothing. “We have a church on 234 Van Ness Street… We have a soup kitchen. We feed Monday through Friday from 11 to 12. Pantry on Wednesdays from one to three… We have a mobile canteen truck where we go down on Broadway and Liberty and feed once a week in the evening… We have an after-school program Monday through Friday from 2:30 to 6:30… Kids get homework help and a meal and their snacks… We also offer classes like baking classes or sports programs. You name it, we’re doing it.”
Other community organizations shared their resources. Planned Parenthood passed out brochures. SNUG passed out pamphlets. SNUG stands for So Never Use Guns. It’s guns spelled backwards.
“We work to reduce the gun violence out here. We work with youth ages 14 to 25. We try to mediate conflicts before they actually go left to actually go into gun violence. We try to get them off the street before the cops get to them because we want them to make it back home to their families. So, take them out, just show them different things… We just try to take them places that they’ve never been. Some of them have never even been on the Metro North train before… So, we just take them all different places and just do positive things with them. [We] try to get them back in school because most of them don’t go to school or dropped out of school because they want to be in the gang or hang on the street. So, we just try to have an alternate way of showing them, ‘Instead of violence, you can take this route… It’s more to life than just Newburgh,’” said Tanganeeka Buxton who works at SNUG.
“Our job is to be outside… We just go to them or we’ll do different events or we just stay on track of them and make sure they are going to school or getting a job and make sure they got all of their documents… A lot of kids don’t have a NYS ID… We feed them. We have a pantry at the office and clothes.”
Various artists performed, including students from the Armory who danced. People enjoyed taking complimentary pictures at a photo booth. Children took pleasure in getting their faces painted and playing in the bouncy houses provided by Finkelstein & Partners.
“My office actually was happy to help out with this event… They sponsored the bouncy houses… the cotton candy and… a few of the other snacks… It’s such a great cause… It’s a horrible situation. It’s just to bring more awareness to the public trying to get guns off the street and get the crime rate down,” said Melody Gregory, Managing Attorney, who recently became a partner and handles clients’ cases when they’ve been involved in unfortunate situations with accidents.