The headline is familiar enough: "South Richmond man is found dead." The story is familiar, too. The body of a 21-year-old man, Rayshawn Beavers, was found by some children playing in woods near Hillside Court, a dusty South Side neighborhood known more for officers in squad cars than moms in Suburbans.
At 5 p.m. Sunday, May 9, some friends of Rayshawn's knocked on Marie Beavers' door and told her that her son had been found dead. That was not the knock she was hoping for. All day, she'd been expecting Rayshawn to walk through the door and wish her a happy Mother's Day.
Desperate for guidance, Marie's sister Delores called the woman known simply as "the lady who helps people." She's Alicia Rasin, Mayor Tim Kaine's special assistant and community liaison. She's a volunteer who spends her days and nights comforting citizens in times of grief and loss.
Though her own health is not strong, and she tires of the calls at all hours and trips to scenes of crimes, she feels compelled to continue serving people. Some wonder how much longer Alicia Rasin can stand on bloody pavement, watch police make chalk outlines of victims and shield distraught survivors from the glare of the media.
Waking Rasin from a deep sleep, Delores explained that they hadn't been allowed yet to see the body. Rasin did what she could over the phone and promised a visit. Early Monday, she made arrangements to head for South Side.
Down Jefferson Davis Highway, a corridor that resembles rocker Lou Reed's infamous "dirty boulevard," past ER Carpenter and Model Tobacco buildings that loom overhead, Rasin searches for her left turn. "OK, where's Mr. Submarine
I think it's further down," she puzzles. "They gave me directions from Commerce Road, but I didn't want to come that way. I got lost one time driving around in circles in the projects
ended up at a dead end with a lot of boys hanging around and coming up to my car, getting a little too close."
Such excursions are not unusual for Rasin; frequently she is called to the scene of a homicide, sometimes in the middle of the night and not often in Beaver Cleaver's neighborhood.
Once the left turn is made, Rasin easily locates the house, a neatly kept brick rancher. Inside, Rasin introduces herself. "We're going to get through this," she assures the family with a hug. Calling everyone into a circle of held hands, she offers a word of prayer, asking God to comfort Rayshawn's family. "We know that he has gone to a better place
and we pray that there will be no retaliation, and that the police will solve this heinous crime." Marie begins to cry quietly and her sisters shake their heads, still disbelieving. It's been less than 24 hours since they got the news.
Sitting down with cell phone in hand, Rasin begins to take care of the business of tough questions. "Have you talked to the mortician yet?" she asks the family. They haven't because they haven't been given the chance to identify Rayshawn's body, which is still at the medical examiner's office.
Rasin makes a quick call to A.D. Price Funeral Home because she knows from experience that they'll make a house call to a distraught family.
Rasin gently asks Marie about what clothing she might want to dress the body in. "Some people like to dress them in suits, but if they didn't dress like that, then you can do what you want," she explains.
Next, she makes a series of calls to the media while the family turns on a large-screen TV to see what the midday news shows are reporting. One station gets the story right, while the other says identification of the body has not been released pending notification of the family, despite the fact that Rayshawn's name appeared in the morning paper. Rasin does her best to get the story straight with TV producers and a newspaper reporter, filling in details with the help of the family "he loved basketball
he played with the Police Athletic League," Marie says.
Then Rasin asks for a photo of Rayshawn to have with her so she can deflect the media from the Beavers and get photographers to bother her instead. This is a well-rehearsed strategy that Rasin has employed time and time again. Rayshawn's father produces a notebook full of mementos including a photograph from his son's senior prom three years ago at George Wythe High School. Rasin tucks the creased photo in her pocketbook for safe keeping.
Finally, Rasin encourages Rayshawn's family to call her day or night if they need help. Marie nods tearfully. As Rasin heads for the front door, five or six of Rayshawn's young friends file into the family room to pay their respects to his parents. Their faces are solemn, but not shocked.
Perhaps they've made visits like this before.
"I'm glad you're here," says Delores. "We're going to need some pall bearers." Answers one of the young men, "That's why we came by."
Alicia Rasin's house is perched on the edge of East End's Jefferson Hill which looms over downtown Richmond. From this notch, one observes a panoramic view that stretches from industrial South Side to Main Street Station to Interstate 95, crowded with trucks that look like toy Matchbox cars from above. In the park in front of Rasin's turn-of-the-century brick home, a playground is crawling with children from a day-care center.
Pigeons flap in the sunshine then land on a neighbor's rain gutter.
Neighbors come and go, glancing at Rasin's house with a look of reverence.
They know that Alicia Rasin is the lady who spends her days and nights comforting families of homicide victims. Is this where an angel lives?
Just back home from a visit to the doctor, Rasin is dressed casually on this morning, in sweats with her long hair hanging loose. Those who have seen her in the newspapers and on TV are used to seeing her in colorful African garb. Even when casual, however, she wears her trademark sunglasses, long manicured nails, bracelets, anklets and gold mesh flats.
Stepping inside her security storm door feels a bit like entering the inner sanctum of goodness and comfort. So, this is where Alicia Rasin, the city of Richmond's icon of compassion lives. But there are no fluffy clouds and pastel drapings, no gold flutes playing.
Instead, her front parlor sports a Christmas tree left over from last year complete with presents beneath it. This is confirmation that Rasin doesn't have enough time for herself. Taking down her tree is an insignificant detail; it takes back seat to delivering Easter baskets, turkeys and hot dinners to the needy and, of course, helping crime victims.
Close to Rasin's side at all times is her dog, Mimi, a petite 17-year-old spaniel/collie mix, who wears three collars ("I like to dress up her up a little," Rasin explains) and barks randomly at nothing. The phone is ringing, and Rasin's beeper is going off. For once, Rasin resolves to let the calls wait, settles into a comfy sofa and begins telling her story in a voice that sounds raspy in a sleepy sort of way.
"I'm a native of Richmond," says Rasin, 46. "I grew up in this house. So did my grandparents, parents and three sisters." The walls of the front parlor are covered with family photos and certificates of recognition, including the mayor's Volunteer of the Year Award for 1996.
Rasin has no special training for her position in the mayor's office, an unpaid job she's held under mayors Leonidas Young, Larry Chavis and now Tim Kaine. She went to John F. Kennedy High School and to college at Virginia State, where she got her B.S. in special education. "I became ill in my early 20s," she says, telling of a blindness she experienced that led her family to take her to Baltimore's Johns Hopkins where a brain tumor was diagnosed. "They removed as much of it as they could," she says.
Her sight was restored, but the state of her health is uncertain. "I have disabilities, but I have abilities. I thank God for sparing me and letting me live through all that.
"I have good days and bad days. On the bad days, I stay in bed and rest."
She adds, as she frequently does, "God is good. I've had more health problems, but I just don't claim it. I just keep going. Last month, I had the flu, and it went into bronchial pneumonia and I was real sick. And for those 26 days, the city was quiet. God is good."