Less than two months after she lost her son, Shalisa Hayes refuses to let go of his memory.
The bedroom that belonged to, or “Billy Ray,” as she called him, looks the same. The Tacoma woman still chats with the former student’s friends and watches their volleyball games, just like he would have done.
During a chat with Patch this week, Hayes carried a blue folder filled with pictures, letters, even the program from his funeral. She donned a white sweatshirt with a likeness of her son inked in red on the front.
“We talk about him like he’s still around,” the 35-year-old says with a bright grin.
Hayes lost her son in the early morning of Aug. 27, when he and two other friends went to a party in the 1600 block of South Center Street in Tacoma to check on one of his friend’s mom, she said.
According to police and news reports, several fights broke out with people at the party, although it’s unclear if Shirley was involved. What authorities do know is as Shirley was leaving the house, an unidentified person opened fire.
The 17-year-old was hit in the back and died. Hayes learned of her son’s death after one of his friends’ posted the news on Facebook.
Hayes had lost her son, the same curious, big-eyed kid who tried to sell pencils to classmates to earn some spare change when he was younger.
What’s even more heartbreaking is Shirley was starting to mature and focus on his future. In the year before he was gunned down, he had become active in the Peace Out program — now based in University Place — which encourages teens to raise money and awareness for local causes they care about.
He had grand plans to help his neighborhood on Tacoma’s East Side by raising money to build a community center.
He experienced his first homecoming at Curtis. To Hayes’ surprise and delight, her son began talking about college after graduation.
So few would have blamed her if she had buckled under the weight of her son’s death. The single mother took leave from her supervisor job at a medical insurance company in Tacoma to support her other son, 12-year-old Ja’mez.
But instead of grieving, instead of questioning why Shirley died, Hayes found strength from the way he lived.
She wants to fulfill her son’s vision of building a community center on Tacoma’s East Side. She knows that the neighborhood’s kids need help discovering their passions and talent.
For the past month, Hayes, along with a group of her son’s friends, have spoken to service groups and community leaders throughout Tacoma trying to generate enthusiasm and, ultimately, money for a new community center.
They don’t know how much it’s going to cost or even where the center would be located. (They’ve looked at a few potential sites but nothing is final)
The only thing that is certain is Hayes won’t stop until her son’s vision becomes reality.
“I don’t want this community center to be another casualty,” she says. “I will not let this thing die.”
Hayes describes her son as a compassionate, curious kid who had been through a lot by the time he enrolled at Curtis last year.
His grades weren't stellar, and he would often become frustrated in the classroom.
Like other teens, Shirley sometimes got involved with the wrong crowd, although he never had a run-in with police.
Most importantly, his mom says, Shirley had a genuine sense of compassion for people who struggled.
Once, he gave a bag of shoes that he collected to a student who couldn’t afford a new pair.
Another time, Shirley rode a Pierce Transit bus all night so he could “know what it was like to be homeless,” his mother said.
Around the time he transferred from Tacoma’s Lincoln High to Curtis – his grandmother lives near the University Place school – he joined Peace Out.
The switch to Curtis helped him focus, Hayes said, as he became more dedicated to his schoolwork, as well as his volunteerism.
He would spend hours every Saturday volunteering for different causes, his mother recalled.
After he died, friends held three candlelight vigils in his honor. They created a pair of Facebook tribute pages with thousands of “Likes.” Countless classmates told Hayes how her son affected their lives.
“Amazing is the only way I can describe him,” his mother says.
And her son’s commitment could continue to affect people for some time.
Hayes has started a foundation in Shirley’s name so supporters can raise money for a community center, for which her son would be the namesake. (Click here to visit the website)
As part of Make a Difference Day on Saturday, the Peace Out program will honor Shirley with a park cleanup and beautification from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Tacoma’s Oakland-Madrona Park, 3114 S. Madison Street.
Shirley's legacy is where Hayes finds her peace. She isn’t angry with the person who shot her son and doesn’t dwell on her loss.
Perhaps she’s too busy trying to keep Billy Ray’s memory alive.
“I’ve grown to kind of accept that somehow he served his purpose,” the spiritual Hayes says. “Now it’s up to us – it’s up to me – to make sure we remember his legacy.”