On the night of Aug. 30, Sharita Galloway sat underneath the canopy of a tree in Rehm Park in Oak Park. It’s the eve of what would’ve been her son’s 22nd birthday, and Galloway, who was anchored by her rollator walker, found herself surrounded by friends, family, neighbors and local leaders. 

Galloway’s son, Elijah Sims, was shot on Aug. 29, 2016, while standing outside with friends in nearby Austin on Chicago’s West Side. Sims, who was just shy of turning 17 and a student at Oak Park and River Forest High School, died a day later.

In the years following his death, community members, elected officials and activists have joined Galloway and her family at candlelight vigils, prayer services and balloon releases to keep Sims’ spirit alive. And now, a tree at Rehm Park bears Sims’ name with a plaque placed at the base of the trunk, a new remembrance. The park is at East Avenue and Garfield.

“I can only speak for myself,” said Galloway into a small megaphone. “I’m not doing anymore balloon releases.”

Galloway and her friend, Barbara Dolan, explained to the crowd that the tree dedicated to Sims served as a living memorial. The two recently teamed up and inquired about the Park District of Oak Park’s memorial tree and bench program.

“Elijah deserves something more meaningful than a balloon that goes up to the sky and then falls back to earth,” said Dolan, adding the long tradition is not eco-friendly. “We get used to seeing balloon releases because they’re spectacular. They’re beautiful. We like the idea of sending prayers to heaven, but unfortunately, balloon releases are not good for our planet.”

“We found this one,” said Dolan, pointing to the tree tucked by the park’s soccer field, behind a fence that outlines the pool. “Part of the idea was that King [Sims’ younger brother] would be able to come here whenever he wanted and climb this tree and think about his brother.”

During the dedication ceremony, Dolan gave guests red roses. Galloway asked them to place 22 roses on each side of the tree in honor of Sims and her godson, Timothy Murphy, who was also shot and killed just over a week ago.

There was a moment of silence, followed by prayer and a call-and-response from the Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin and a founder of the Leaders Network, a social justice organization. Other guest speakers, including state Rep. La Shawn Ford and a friend of Galloway’s from a support group, offered reflection, while state Rep. Camille Lilly led the group and sang “This Little Light of Mine.”

“Each person that I have here today are individuals that were there for me when I first lost my son on Day 1,” Galloway said. “They came to my house without hesitation, without even knowing me.”

After the event ended, Galloway stayed under Sims’ tree. As the crowd dispersed, some of the attendees – most of whom were family friends – lingered, waiting for their chance to greet Galloway. 

Galloway said “everything” has been difficult since Sims’ death, and she has one message to share with those who are willing to listen.

“Stop the violence,” she said, reaching out to hug a close friend who emerged from the crowd. “Learn to communicate better.”