Menbere Aklillu’s mother was shot and killed in her native Ethiopia by a police sergeant when she was 10 years old.
So the 54-year-old owner of Salute e Vita Ristorante in Richmond, Calif., knows very well how important a mother – or the absence of one – can be in shaping a childhood.
That’s why on this Mother’s Day, Aklilu is hosting her fifth annual “Yes, You Are Worthy” brunch with a slight theme shift: While in years past she has focused on single mothers living in public housing, this year, she will shine a light on children who have lost their mothers to gun violence, just like she did.
“Those children are me,” Aklilu said. “I know exactly what they are going through.”
Of the 75 mothers invited Sunday to her white-linen Italian restaurant on Richmond’s Marina Bay, special honor will be given to Barbara Harris, 59, who lost her own 29-year-old daughter, Rashanda Franklin, when her estranged boyfriend allegedly killed her in front of her two sons, ages 5 and 9, last month. Franklin's 3-year-old son was not present at the time. All three are now living with Harris. “The boys don’t really understand all this yet,” Harris said in an interview on Tuesday. “But for me, something is missing. She’s not here right now and I have a big hole.”
The alleged shooter, Lawyer McBride, was arrested in Sacramento and police said they had responded to previous domestic violence calls between him and Franklin. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Harris’ four sisters and Franklin’s younger sister will also be guests and treated to makeovers and a limo ride to the event. But this is not the first time at Aklilu’s restaurant. The boys and their grandmother celebrated Easter with Akllilu, whose mother was killed 45 years ago, also at Easter time. Later on in life, Aklilu fled an abusive relationship and gave birth in a women's shelter, so Franklin's death resonates quite strongly with her.
“I remember that very well, like it was yesterday,” Aklilu said in an interview with KTVU on Tuesday. “I was broken in pieces when I heard the news when I heard about the boys’ mother.”
Despite the tragedy, Aklilu said she told Harris that her grandsons “will be OK. I came out OK, and so will they.” To help ensure that, Aklilu said she is paying for the boys’ tuition at New Direction Christian Academy for two years.
The Mother’s Day brunch will include a five-star, four-course meal at Aklillu’s restaurant, where she has hosted many community events over the years. Those events include an annual Thanksgiving dinner that feeds more than 1,000 homeless people and a meal last year for Richmond police after five officers were shot and killed in Dallas. Her activism has drawn the praise of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who dined at Salute Marina Bay last year, and also earned a string of honors, including an April entrepreneur award from U.S. Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Lee.
Also this year, Aklilu is bringing Mother’s Day lunch on Saturday to 150 mothers visiting their sick children at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland. She plans to transform the cafeteria into an elegant dining room with white tablecloths and flower centerpieces. Volunteers will help her set up and companies have donated some of their goods and services. Aklilu will also donate $20,000 to the hospital.