Camille Mays is proof that one person can make a difference in the lives of many—one family at a time. Mays, a community organizer with Sherman Park Community Association (SPCA), is also the founder of the Peace Garden Project MKE, an initiative that “seeks to immortalize loved ones by replacing makeshift shrines of liquor bottles, teddy bears, and balloons for victims of homicide or car crashes with perennial plants, mulch, stones, and other landscaping.”
A lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Mays was raised by her grandparents after her mother passed away when she was only 15 years old. She grew up attending private schools until high school, when she started attending Rufus King, but at the age of 16 she became a teen mother.
“I was determined that I would not become a statistic. Having a son inspired me to continue even though the odds were against me, and I graduated only one month later in summer school, after my fellow classmates,” she said.
Mays admits that she suffers from PTSD and depression, mostly due to her mom’s passing.
“I didn’t have a harsh life growing up. I lost my mother early, but I try not to dwell on that. I remember the way Sherman Park looked when I was growing up. I loved the area—with its stately and expansive homes. It’s definitely changed over the years, but our family moved back to this area and once I got here I wanted to make a difference,” said Mays.
Mays said that the idea of the Peace Garden Project MKE came to her when she was on an aldermanic walk of the neighborhood. She noticed the trash-strewn blocks and dirty, makeshift memorials that lined so many of the streets and she found it depressing.
“Neighborhoods on the other side of town, like Harambee, Brewers Hill, and The Third Ward don’t look this depressing. I wanted to do something to give our community vibrant colors and life to help make it look more hopeful for our children and families. I know that the families that have lost loved ones are grieving and you want to respect them. With this project, I first get permission from the family to remove the makeshift memorial and replace it with perennials and annuals so that looks like landscaping, but to the family it symbolizes a hallowed ground that isn’t threatened with removal by the city. This unique idea honors the family and their loss while respecting the city’s sanitation laws. Removing the memorial is also a gift to the community and the families that are suffering trauma. This is my gift of healing,” said she.
Mays said that, to date, no family that she has approached, has declined the landscaping.
“Not only do they give me permission, but they get involved in helping design and plant the memorial. We always have family and friends work on the project, sometimes with help from community members and master gardeners from the neighborhood,” said Mays.
This project has promoted a positive change in Mays’ Sherman Park neighborhood and inspired homeowners and renters to take care of their own landscapes. Another unexpected benefit is that some families have been inspired to start vegetable gardens in their yards. As neighborhood children see these emerging gardens, they also have become interested in gardening—coming over and offering to help. Mays has also partnered with Pastor Christie Melby-Gibbons of the Tricklebee Café to host classes and workshops on growing flowers and food. Their goal is to show that eating healthy can be less expensive and helps reduce food costs.
Mays said that she acquired some of her gardening skills from her grandfather.
“Growing up, there was a community garden near where we lived, and I used to go with my grandfather to help tend his plot. Over the years, through trial and error, I’ve honed my own gardening skills. When the families get involved, they realize how relaxing gardening can be. At one of our meetings, someone joked that gardening is better than Prozac. In fact, there’s been studies done that confirm that gardening is therapeutic; it releases serotonin,” said Mays.
Mays is correct. Researchers reported in the journal Neurosciencethat contact with a soil bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae triggers the release of serotonin in the brain. This type of serotonin acts on several different pathways including mood and learning. Lack of serotonin in the brains is related to depression; so basically, working soil, planting, mulching, and so forth—contributes to happiness. For example, even simple acts of children playing outside in the grass and dirt can be a natural way for them to reduce anxiety.
Since starting the Peace Garden Project three years ago, the only funding Mays has received is from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. Since she does not yet have 501 (c) (3) status, she has to rely on third party fiscal agency and she just recently received one.
“I wanted to do something good for the neighborhood and the families in our community. I can’t change the world, but this one little part is something I can do. That’s my gift. It’s what I can give to make a difference,” said Mays.