I met Keke Collins at Gwynn Oak Park. It’s a pretty park with a pond and playground, a bucolic gem nestled in the midst of a chaotic city. It has been a difficult two years for Keke. In June of 2015, her boyfriend died after a long battle with cancer. Keke comes here from time to time to seek solace.

The day Jen took this photo was a humid July morning and our first photo shoot with rain. It wasn’t just rain, but a deluge that I’d later learn flooded my basement. Keke parked near me, and I rushed the few yards to her car. We looked at one another not saying a word but clearly communicating our shared concern that this photo would be impossible. “Jen will know what to do when she arrives,” I assured her.

We sat and laughed about the absurdity of attempting a photograph in these conditions. I asked her about a snapshot slipped into the visor of her car of her with three beautiful little boys. She told me it was a picture of Donta and his two brothers. Donta was the middle child. Even in this studio photo you can tell that this is a boy with spirit and heart. His eyes sparkle with curiosity. Keke smiled at her children, “If anyone was going to make sure that I was okay, it was Donta. He always watched out for me.”

Jen jumped into the back of Keke’s car. “Ok, we’ll make this work,” she said. “Let’s just give it some time.”  We did.  We sat in the car and talked about Donta. Keke showed us a video of Donta taken at a job training site. He’d been invited back by the school to talk about his success as a welder. The video shows a handsome charismatic young man. He looks at the audience, “You gave me the opportunity to go forward. I’m not going backwards.”

His smile is so infectious I couldn’t help returning it as tears streamed down my face. He tells the audience that as a child he made an oath to himself that he would never become one of the men he watched making drug deals “and stabbing their best friends in the back” on the corner. He was determined to get out of Baltimore.

He did it. He had a good paying welding job, a girlfriend, and an apartment outside of the city. He was living his childhood dream. Then, on July 31, 2016, he and his brother went to meet acquaintances with whom they had an altercation. The plan was to resolve their difference like men, the way that Keke taught her boys. You talk out your differences. You don’t fight them out. It isn’t clear what happened, but the meeting took a dreadful turn. Shots rang out. Donta was dead.

The news of Donta’s murder shocked his neighborhood. “No one could believe it,” Keke sighed. “I mean, my brother had been shot and survived it. When he heard about Donta, he told me it should have been him. That he should have been the one to die.”

Keke was never worried about her boys being hurt on the streets. Donta was a star basketball player and spent most of his free time traveling to games or practicing. “The only thing I ever worried about was the police hurting them. I taught my boys to respect people. I taught them manners. I know sometimes the police just see a black man and they get scared. But this? I still don’t understand.”

Her son was determined to work hard and get out of Baltimore. Like so many, he didn't get out alive. Go #BehindTheStatisticsClick To Tweet


The day before our photo shot, Keke got a call from the State’s Attorney (SA). She anticipated that Donta’s murdered trial would begin the day after his one year death anniversary. She took comfort in that. The anniversary would be difficult, but on August 1 she could look at his killer and have some sense of justice. Keke says that when she saw the State’s Attorney’s phone number pop up on her cellphone screen, she knew it was going to be bad news.

The State’s Attorney apologized; there would be no trial. It was impossible, the State’s Attorney reasoned, as the key witness just died of an overdose and Keke’s older son had not witnessed the firing of the shot. The reality is the State’s Attorney couldn’t risk losing another case and this one didn’t look promising. No trial.

Keke, no stranger to trauma and loss, was now experiencing it all over again. This isn’t unusual for gun violence victims. They often feel abandoned and forgotten by a thoroughly flawed justice system.

“They tell us to keep our babies close,” Keke said to me with tears in her eyes. “I kept my babies close.” She shook her head in resignation. “I taught my boys about manners and respect. Their father held them close.” She sighs “I know,” I said in a futile attempt to comfort. And then the rain broke. Sun shone through. Jen, Keke and I all looked at one another. “Now,” Jen shouted. We had a half hour of gorgeous weather to take the photographs. I’m certain Jen got this photo in the first five takes. Keke is a striking woman. Capturing her beauty and strength is easy.

In the process of taking the photo, Keke mentioned that she hadn’t made plans to recognize the anniversary of Donta’s death. She was so focused on the upcoming court case. Now, there was no court case. Keke said she’d like to do something by Gwen Oak Pond. Jen and I agreed that would be a beautiful place for a vigil. Three days later, we met Keke in the same parking lot. This last-minute gathering turned into a beautiful celebration with well over 50 people. Donta’s family, basketball teammates, school friends, and the MOMs were all there. We laughed and cried. We lit candles. Keke smiles and speaks about all of her sons, “my boys have always given me purpose.” Her oldest son walks up and embraces her warmly. She holds him close.

Donta Duane Collins February 11, 1994- July 31, 2016

Liz Banach
Written by Liz Banach, Executive Director, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence



  • Ralph says:

    I am so sorry for the loss of your son. I pledge to help in the fight for stricter gun laws so that other Mothers may not lose their precious son as you have.

  • Sol Luna says:

    I can’t even imagine the pain of losing a child and now losing someone else you love to cancer. I am sure that despite his early death your son knew he was loved and his mother is proud of him. Thank you for speaking up.

  • Konni Shier says:

    OH, Keke. I’m so sorry for the loss of your wonderful Donta. I want you to know that I will always work to get our nation to have common sense gun laws. I will always stand up for you, for other mothers and dads, and for all the children of any age . May you find healing and comfort among your family and friends.

  • Julie says:

    Hi Keke, I am so sorry for your devastating loss. I want to thank you for sharing your story. I promise you I will fight for Donta and for all families to never face a situation similar to yours.

  • Jodi says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Keke. I am so very sorry and send you love and strength.

  • Ladd Everitt says:

    Keke, I am so sorry for the loss of your beautiful son and for the lack of closure through the criminal justice system. I so admire your courage in being able to speak out about your tragedy so that others might avoid such pain. Love to you.

  • Kathleen Zoll says:

    Dear Keke, I am so sorry for your loss, and for the lack of a court case in this regard. You are absolutely in my prayers, and I will continue to work for gun reform in this country so that this can’t happen to anyone else. Stay strong and know you are loved and supported!

  • Kathleen says:

    Hi Keke, the pain of knowing that you did all the right things as a parent and still, your son Donta became a victim is every parent’s worst fear. I empathize deeply with you, and send you loving thoughts. It is not fair and not right, and utterly despicable, that a mother has to suffer like this. The pain of your suffering and of all those other grieving mothers is what motivates me to work even harder to stand up against gun violence.

  • Karen says:

    Keke your loss of Donta is our loss too. After reading his story and what he was contributing and prepared to contribute were assets. Skills, character and an example of how your personal and work ethics elevate you. We are lesser since a senseless act took him away. I will remember him and you. Gone is not forgotten. His name is welded in my mind and in your heart. His life had purpose and your story keeps that alive. God save our streets and our world and help us become what we should be, kind, peaceful, grateful people. May blessings and angels surround you and your family.

  • Sylvia Harris says:

    I can almost see your son’s spirit, because I am a february 10 born and my youngest son is February 9 born. We have very gentle spirits full of love and reasoning that’s the AQUARIAN WAY. WE LIVE PEACEFUL LIVES. THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOUR SON’S WONDERFUL SPIRIT WITH ME, MY JESUS CHILD.

  • Sylvia Harris says:

    For God so loved us that he sent his only begotten son to receive our love one. They probably have formed a heavenly sports team already.

  • Chennelle Vince says:

    I have 2 sons of my own and I couldn’t fathom something happening to either one of them. I hold them close by my side and in my heart. Keep both myself & them in prayer. I commend your courage & bravery to stand, walk & talk to people about your tragedy & your triumph. You are a walking testimony for some & a ray of hope for others. God bless you & your family. For this has a meaningful message to a lot of family’s. Keke keep goin baby never stop. ❤❤❤

  • Fatina says:

    KeKe I am so sorry for your loss. I worry everyday about my children. You are a great mom and yo have instilled greatness into your sons. My prayers are with you always. Keep your faith KeKe. Love you 🙏🏾❤️

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