The kids on the South Side know Mary Nelson. She’s the reason many of them have pencils for school, someone to help them with reading and even a hot dinner each night as this cold winter persists.
What they may not know is that almost a decade ago, it all started in honor of one youngster: the nephew Darryl she raised as her son.
It was Mother’s Day, 2002. Mary was prepared to stay at home that day and just relax. But the phone rang.
“Aunt Mary, I got a Mother’s Day gift for you.”
“Darryl, I don’t want no Mother’s Day gift. Just you being here is my Mother’s Day gift,” Mary answered.
“But I want to see you, Aunt Mary.”
Darryl Patterson, who was morbidly obese, had been shot a year before. His best friend, high on drugs and hallucinating one night, shot at him six times. Five bullets hit. Darryl lived for a year, unable to move. Mary said her nephew forgave his best friend, whose two sons were Darryl’s godchildren.
Mary went to her sister’s home, where Darryl lived. When she got up to his room, Darryl was sitting on the side of his bed. And he was dressed — something he hadn’t done in a year. He wore a pair of jeans, his brown Timberland boots and a beautiful light blue shirt. A cross hung at the bottom of his necklace.
“Aunt Mary, I got dressed just for you. Happy Mother’s Day.”
“He always showed me he loved me,” Mary recalled recently, wiping away tears. “But he really showed me some love that day. It was like he was reaching out, saying, ‘Bye Auntie, I love you. It’s the last time you’ll ever see me dressed like this again.’ ”
Darryl died a month later. He was 23.
Darryl, a Christmastime baby (Dec. 30), didn’t want gifts for his birthday, Mary said. Instead, he’d buy toys and ride around in his truck, handing them out to children.
“I believe in my heart that when he left here, he had a smile on his face. Because he did his part,” Mary says today.
God doesn’t make mistakes, Mary says. He doesn’t. He had a better plan for Darryl.
“Sometimes in life, we do not know what God has in the plan for us. We’re not supposed to question it. We never know in life what he has planned. And what he had planned for me is to reach out and help others.”
And so the Youth Day Barbecue and the Mary Nelson Youth Center were born. Less than three months after Darryl’s death, Mary and others from the neighborhood hosted a back-to-school barbeque on South Salina Street.
In an interview before the very first Youth Day Barbeque, Mary told the Syracuse Post-Standard, “It’s going to be the start of something.”
If only she knew. The event, which gives away backpacks and school supplies for the upcoming academic year, has grown from a couple hundred kids to more than 15,000. In June 2009, Mary opened the Mary Nelson Youth Center, where volunteers help kids with schoolwork and connect their families with job and health resources.
Mary’s quest to prevent youth violence through education continues today, in Darryl’s honor. If you want to sell drugs, go to college and become a pharmacist, she always says.
Recent data from the New York State Education Department shows that as of August 2008, the graduation rate for the Syracuse City School District was 52 percent.
“I plead to so many people, so many young people. It just takes a second — a second — to get yourself in so much trouble, and a lifetime to get yourself out of it,” she says.
On a recent evening, Mary sat with her husband’s granddaughter and four of the six other foster kids she’s raising. The 10-year-old says that being at the youth center reminds her of Darryl.
“Do you miss him?” Mary asks.
“I miss him very much.”
What would Darryl think of the center? Mary asks her.
“He would be excited and surprised,” she says. “He would be grateful. Very grateful.”