CAMDEN, NJ—Three desks inside Lisa Wallenburg’s art room at the Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School stand out.
Across the back of one chair are the words “I saved a seat for you" painted in bold blue letters and outlined in gold.
That chair is behind a desk painted white, with three different arms that stretch across the top. Two of the arms are holding hands, and one is holding a rose with its petals falling to the ground.
Across the top of another desk — which is a work in progress — is the name Javonne Davis outlined in pencil. To the right is a pair of praying hands holding Rosary Beads.
Javonne was a freshman at Camden High gunned down while walking home from school in November.
The desks are the work of Brimm senior Christian Moreno, and are the start of the new project #nomoreemptydesks.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over the last 20 years 26,000 children and teens have died as a result of gun violence.
#nomoreemptydesks turns old desks into a memorial for students who have become victims to mass shootings or gun violence. Its the brainchild of Robin Cogan, a nurse in the Camden City School District.
Cogan wanted to provide students with a platform to express how they feel about gun violence, something she is all too familiar with.
Cogan’s father, Charles Cohen, lost both of his parents, his grandmother, and 10 neighbors when Howard Unruh opened fire in Camden’s Cramer Hill neighborhood on Sept. 6, 1949. Unruh killed 13 people in what is now called the “Walk of Death,” and the nation’s first mass shooting. Her father survived by hiding in a closet in his home.
Almost 70 years later, Cogan’s niece Carly Novell was a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. On Feb. 14, 2018, she too found herself inside of a closet, hiding from a gunman.
“My father died nine years ago, and he wasn’t able to use his voice,” Cogan said. “After this happened to my niece, I’ve been very active writing about it, working on the issue.”
She got the idea for #nomoreemptydesks after sharing her story on Twitter. She received a message from a school nurse in Tennessee, who informed her of the domestic violence awareness program Rutgers University holds every October, which places places purple items and posters across its campuses to signify victims of domestic violence.
“I thought, maybe we can do something like that for gun violence awareness,” Cogan said, and the project grew from there.
In August, Cogan reached out to Wallenburg about the project, who jumped right on board.
“I thought instantly … wouldn’t it be nice to see when you walk into a school. Its a voice for kids to say we haven’t forgotten,” Wallenburg said. “A lot of times you hear about these things. and you just don’t know what you can do as a kid. This gives them something to do. Here’s how I can help a little bit, here’s where my voice was heard in all this chaos.”
For Christian, he hopes when other students see the desks, it reminds them of how lucky they are.
“Just to be grateful for what they got,” Christian said. It also provides him with an outlet to express himself.
“I’m a really quiet person, so my art expresses how I feel,” Christian said.
He’s not the only student participating. Senior Nytasia Braxton’s desk serves as a reminder that a gun violence can happen anywhere, anytime. Her desk signifies that theme, and features a map of the world with flags from different countries painted inside each region.
“It happens everywhere,” Braxton said. “[I hope students] think about how lucky they are that they didn't have to go through anything that other kids that are the survivors of shootings have gone through.”
Cogan’s goal is to get more schools and students involved in #nomoreemptydesks, and hopes that work of the Brimm seniors gets displayed in their school, or even in a gallery or art show.
“The biggest thing that really impacts me is just to see how the students express themselves about this issue,” Cogan said. “I think these have come a really long way in just a short period of time. I think they would be an amazing exhibition. We just want to get their voices out there.”
To learn more about #nomoremptydesks, visit Cogan’s blog, The Relentless School Nurse, here.