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Grieving Families Turn Tragedy Into Opportunity for Others

It has been two months since Meltony and Brandy Billie stood outside the Art Institute of Virginia Beach to announce the creation of a foundation and scholarship named after their daughter Ashanti, who wanted to pursue careers in the culinary arts.

Ashanti, 19, a graduate of Dr. Henry A. Wise High School in Upper Marlboro, moved in August to the Virginia Beach area, where she enrolled in the institute and worked at the Blimpie sandwich shop on a Navy base in Norfolk.

But on Sept. 29, the body of the young woman was found behind a church in Charlotte, North Carolina. A task force led by the FBI, Navy and law enforcement officials got underway, and a retired Navy veteran, Eric Brown, was soon arrested in connection with her disappearance.

But instead of focusing on their pain, her parents focused on forming The Ashanti Foundation, their attempt to create a legacy on behalf of their daughter.

“With this organization, we will be offering one scholarship each year to a student from her high school to attend the Art Institute at Virginia Beach and study culinary arts,” the parents said in a statement. “Our plan is to offer this scholarship beginning for the fall term of 2018.”

All over the Washington area, people have turned the loss of loved ones into promise through donations to medical societies, creating foundations and even donating their loved ones’ remains for medical research.

Edgar Brookins also knows the pain of losing a child. Last month, the general manager of the Washington Afro-American newspaper buried his 25-year-old daughter Ciera, who died of lupus.

“She was my baby girl,” said Brookins, who decided to turn his daughter’s death into an opportunity to host a recent fundraiser that raised more than $4,000 for the Lupus Foundation of America. “My son wanted me to celebrate my birthday that was coming up and I didn’t want to. But then I said let’s have a birthday celebration to raise money for the [foundation].”

Brookins was expecting a turnout of about 100 people for the event at the Camelot in Upper Marlboro, but roughly 200 showed up and donated $4,000, four times the goal.

“It was empowering and it inspired me to move on with my life,” said Brookins, who himself is battling prostate cancer. “It was honor to see so many people. I didn’t know so many people cared.”

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In November 2016, the journalism world lost Gwen Ifill, 61, co-host of PBS’s “News Hour,” who died of cancer.

Ifill was a former reporter for The New York Times and The Washington Post. She switched to television in the 1990s and covered politics and Congress for NBC News.

Last month Simmons College announced that it was renaming its school of journalism as the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts and Humanities in honor of Ifill, who graduated from the college with a communications degree in 1977.

In addition to the Simmons honor, there are plans to begin a scholarship in her name at the Metropolitan Baptist Church.

“Gwen was always for educating young people and her family told the church that she wanted that to continue after she was gone,” said the Rev. William Lamar, pastor of Metropolitan, who preached Ifill’s funeral. “At a time when real news is called fake and lies are called real news, it is refreshing to think of how Gwen was about addressing truth.”

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In 1951, Henrietta Lacks became an unknowing source for research after her tumor was biopsied during treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

As a result of the research, famed scientist George Otto Gey propagated the cell line named after Lacks known as HeLa, which is still used for medical research and the basis of an Oprah Winfrey-backed movie.

But despite the scientific gains, Lacks’ eldest son, Lawrence, and his son have mixed feelings about her contributions to medical research.

“We are proud that HeLa cells have helped so many people,” said Ron Lacks, Lacks’ grandson. “There was a $40,000 scholarship in her name, but my dad is getting old and they have never done anything for our family.”

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Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the Greater Washington Area. Hamil has chronicled the Million Man March, the Clinton White House, the September 11 attack, the sniper attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the campaign of President Barack Obama and many other people and events. Hamil is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of the Washington Post where he writes a range of stories, shoots photos and produces videos for the print and online editions of the Post. In addition, he is often called upon to report on crime, natural disasters and other breaking issues. In 2006 Harris was part of a team of reporters that published the series “Being a Black Man.” He was also the reporter on the video project that accompanied the series that won two Emmy Awards, the Casey Medal and the Peabody Award. Hamil has lectured at Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, the American University, the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia. He also lectures several times a year to interns during their semester in the District as part of their matriculation at the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities.

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