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Roz Pichardo
Roz Pichardo is a lifelong Kensington resident and has spent it fighting gun violence and opioids in her neighborhood. Photo: Kianni Figuereo/AL DÍA News.

Get to know Philly's Mama Sunshine

Roz Pichardo is a one-woman movement against gun violence and opioids in Kensington.

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All it takes is five minutes, but for Rosalind ‘Roz’ Pichardo, it’s usually the most important part of her day. In that time, Pichardo is honoring the many people in her life she’s lost.

It could be through meditation, a cup of coffee, crying, or something else, but the important thing is “being in that moment, and knowing what the time is for,” she told AL DÍA in an interview over the Summer.

It’s for remembering the boyfriend that taught her to love again at 16, her twin sister, baby brother, and all those she now helps to overcome their own traumas involving those lost to gun violence and opioids — just like the people she loved and continues to love. 

Pichardo’s story and theirs are intertwined, and if her’s teaches anything, it’s the power of perseverance and fighting for change no matter how bad the world has you down.

The fight’s always been a part of Pichardo’s life.

Roz Pichardo
Photo: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

“The edge of chaos”

Growing up in a three-generation household of 23 in North Philadelphia, Pichardo said she was “always on the edge of chaos,” in a TED Talk at the University of Pennsylvania in August 2022.

“Busy,” was the word she used in her sit-down with AL DÍA.

Born to a Puerto Rican mom and Dominican dad, but the latter wasn’t a figure in her life, and she had more memories with her Puerto Rican stepfather, who helped raise her in the packed household in North Philly.

The walls were also thin within the house, so the constant commotion — aunts and uncles arguing, children playing and everything in between — became the white noise to Pichardo’s childhood and adolescence. She found peace — and routine — in waking up in the morning and brushing her great-grandmother’s long, wavy hair.

Outside of the house, a young Roz had many interests and they brought about a host of potential career paths, whether it was in track and field or gymnastics as a coach, or as a police officer or firewoman, her interests were varied, but eventually came back to the same goal.

“I knew I wanted to serve people, but in what capacity I never really knew,” Pichardo told AL DÍA.

The other constant of her early life was the violence in her surrounding neighborhood. Pichardo grew up in Kensington, and some members of her large family were involved in the drug trade that has long plagued the neighborhood with addiction and the aforementioned violence. It also meant those same family members were often in and out of the criminal justice system.

No matter their place or previous decisions in life, Pichardo said she always remained supportive of them and pushed for them to change their lives.

“A lot of them did, a lot of them didn’t,” she told AL DÍA. “For the most part, it was about wanting to be a part of the change.”

Violence hits home

When she was 16, that violence hit close to home for the first time, as Pichardo’s then-boyfriend was shot, and confined to a hospital bed until he recovered. Pichardo would visit him and stayed supportive throughout the ordeal until he was released. It was then she came to a harsh discovery.

“It changed him,” Pichardo said of her then-boyfriend. “He became a totally different person.”

What was once a loving relationship descended into abuse, as the unaddressed trauma of being a victim of gun violence took its toll. Her boyfriend became paranoid and violent, and Pichardo eventually decided to remove herself from the dangerous situation.

Some time passed after the split, and Pichardo found love anew, but her ex still hadn’t dealt with his trauma and took it out on her and her new boyfriend, Tower, using the same violence that had hurt him so deeply. 

“Dealing with his unaddressed trauma, he ultimately tried to take my life,” said Pichardo.

He shot her and then threw her over a bridge at 11th and Erie before finding Tower in front of her parents house and shooting and killing him.

“That day, I was immersed so deeply that there wasn’t any light,” Pichardo said in her recent TED Talk.

Six years later, in 2000, she found herself immersed again as her twin sister died of suicide amid ongoing battles with substance abuse and mental illness.

Amid this second tragedy, the wheels began to turn for change as Pichardo realized the system that had failed her sister. Given her sister’s mental health issues, the government had “allowed her” to purchase the firearm she used to eventually take her own life.

“What does it look like to me to help change that system?” was an early question that came to Pichardo’s mind.

At the time, the answer was still to just continue “moving forward.”

The final straw broke on the night of Jan. 9, 2012, when Pichardo’s younger brother, Alexander Martinez, was shot and killed in North Philly. Not only did her family have to struggle through a long wait in the emergency room for answers from doctors about her brother’s status, but police detectives were also never forthcoming with much information about their investigation into who killed him.

In the end, her brother passed away the next day in the hospital and his killer remains free to this day.

Operation Save Our City

His death was Pichardo’s lowest point, but it also spawned a movement that’s defined her life and work for the last 10 years — Operation Save Our City.

The organization helps families through the process of losing a loved one to gun violence in Philadelphia.

“Inserting myself in spaces like that is important as a person who’s experienced gun violence, and knowing what they’re going to expect for the next couple days, months and even years,” said Pichardo, who also began to work in the trauma bay in Temple University Hospital’s emergency room — the same emergency room where her brother passed away. 

In that vein, Operation Save Our City’s supports are all-encompassing, and include everything from preparing family members for future interactions with the police and hospital, to getting the word out about rewards for finding killers and providing supportive spaces for mothers and other loved ones to grieve.

It’s the latter of the services that’s built the bedrock for Operation Save Our City to grow and thrive.

In Pichardo’s words, there is a certain “power” that arises in mothers when they collectively remember the children they’ve lost to gun violence.

“Something happens in them,” she said. “When mothers are chanting their kid’s name and we’re passing the bullhorn… They feel this energy and then they never stop.”

“We just keep that ball rolling in hopes that more mothers will be on the front line.”

Beyond the power that’s built, the practice also begins the healing process that lasts the rest of a surviving loved one’s life.

“We’re reminding each other that we can move forward,” said Pichardo.

‘Sunshine’ is born

In 2018, after six years of hitting the pavement for gun violence victims, Pichardo took a break and left the base of mothers she had built to run the organization on their own.

During her sabbatical, Pichardo couldn’t keep herself from helping others and her next move was to pack up her mini van with food to give out to Kensington’s unhoused population.

“And then I never stopped,” she said.

However, on those missions to feed the unhoused, Pichardo also began to encounter a number of people passed out between cars, in empty lots, and abandoned buildings. They had overdosed on the heroin and fentanyl that now dominated the drug trade in the neighborhood.

“I didn’t know what to do with that,” Pichardo said of finding those who had overdosed.

It was then that Pichardo learned how to administer Narcan, the prescription medication used to reverse overdoses, and incorporated it into a new effort at Operation Save Our City. To this day, Pichardo still gives Narcan trainings to whoever wants them and wherever she can in the city.

In serving the unhoused and drug addicted, it’s also where arguably her most notable nickname arose — ‘Mama Sunshine.’ It comes from the endearing nickname she gives all those she serves on a daily basis doing work in the community. 

“‘Sunshine’ just seemed to resonate with everybody,” said Pichardo, who is also the subject of a recent short film, Hello Sunshine, based on the nickname.

These days just a mention of the word along Kensington Avenue will get heads turning, and not for the same reasons that follow the negativity often thrown at those struggling with addiction in the neighborhood.

The work pays off

That’s been Pichardo’s story for the last 10 years. 

It’s been a decade of “moving forward” for herself and the thousands of others she’s touched along the way. That journey’s taken her throughout Philadelphia, to the state — where she now works with CeaseFirePA to bring investments to curb gun violence across the Commonwealth — and even to the White House, where she was recently on hand to see President Joe Biden sign the first piece of gun legislation in decades.

Pichardo called the latter experience “powerful” and “inspiring.” But most importantly, it’s a validation of the work she’s done and continues to do.

Her ultimate hope is that others will follow in her footsteps.

“People are watching us, people are listening to us, and maybe people can follow suit, create their own movement,” said Pichardo. “I’m always trying to get people to do the work, whatever that may be.”

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