"Your father’s dead."
Ayres, from the 2600 block of Robinson Street in Southwest Philly, recalled the look on the boy’s face as one of sadness, pain and disbelief all rolled into one. Then her son let out a tortured, strange sound that she said she could not describe.
The two clung to each other inside her car as Ayres tried to tell her sobbing son that everything would be OK.
"Why my dad?" Barnes asked her.
"God needed security in heaven and he was the best man for the job," she replied.
The burning body of Ayres’ ex-husband, Dominic Vincent Barnes Sr., was found at 3:40 a.m. June 13 in Newcastle, Del., behind a building in an industrial park, said Delaware State Police Lt. Joseph Aviola Jr. The 38-year-old South Philly resident had been shot in his head and then set on fire, the lieutenant added.
Ayres had to identify — through photographs — the man she married Feb. 16, 1997, at a 76ers game.
"I just broke down. I mean, it was sad. You know, people say, ‘My ex-husband or my ex-wife,’ but you never think about losing that person until they’re gone," she said.
After the tragedy, Ayres tried to get help for her son so he could cope. Her other three children — Uriel, 4; Trequan, 13; and Tierra, 15 — have a different father and therefore were not as affected by the loss.
The concerned mother found one organization dedicated to helping youths in similar situations to Dominic’s, but the group met bimonthly and Barnes needed immediate help.
Together with best girlfriend Linda Whitfield, of the 700 block of South 16th Street, Ayres founded Little Dom’s Angels for Life.
Dominic helped the directors name the citywide nonprofit organization geared toward helping children cope with a loss — be it of family, friends, schoolmates or even pets. The death does not have to be the result of violence, Ayres added.
"A loss is a loss, and children are not prepped to handle loss like adults. Children do not really know how to channel that grief," she noted.
After reading about 20 books on how to start a nonprofit organization and picking the brains of local nonprofit founders, Ayres hit the ground running.
Despite the demands of her new venture, she has no plans to quit her day job as a customer service representative for Sysco Foods, 600 Packer Ave.
She describes Little Dom’s Angels for Life as a calling she had to answer not only for her son but for herself.
"It’s given me something to do. This is my way of channeling my grief. It’s given me something to do because it’s been non-stop," she said.
Ayres added that she’s always wanted to work in some capacity to help kids.
While she and Whitfield already have obtained nonprofit status for their organization, there’s still much work ahead. Ayres acknowledged the two have wide visions and limited resources, but they believe their cause is worthwhile.
The women are presently searching for a building in South or Southwest Philly that they can either rent or receive through donation. Ayres envisions the headquarters as a place where children can go to escape the pain they’re feeling, "a place to cry or color and be around other kids who’ve experienced loss. It’s easy for someone to say, ‘Oh, I know how you feel,’ but how could you if you’ve never been a child who’s experienced a loss?"
But the center would offer more than help with the grieving process. Ayres plans to offer tutoring and arts and crafts, along with sports activities and day trips. Two counselors will be on call from the Elwyn Behavior Institute at 40th and Market streets.
Acknowledging departed loved ones also will be part of the program. Ayres wants to host her own special celebrations of Father’s, Mother’s and Grandparents’ days.
"We don’t want them to dwell on the grief," she said. "We want to fill their time with other activities. We want to channel it into positive energy."
It’s not uncommon for some children to find self-destructive outlets for their sadness by picking fights or letting their grades drop, Ayres added.
Community service will play a large role in the healing process.
Ayres wants to take the youths to senior citizen centers, where they can just visit or read to older adults. The director hopes that by exposing grief-stricken children to others in need, they will realize that they are not the only ones suffering and in need of help.
"You’ve experienced a loss but life still has to go on. But you can help others, and that will make them feel good about themselves and give them a sense of self-worthiness," she said.
While Ayres plans to give back to the community, she’s also counting on its support to achieve her goals.
The nonprofit still needs lots of volunteers. Coaches and students are especially encouraged to lend their time, Ayres said. She’s already spoken to several local coaches, one of whom expressed interest in joining her board of directors.
And Ayres has been in touch with Council President Anna Verna in hopes of winning her involvement with Little Dom’s Angels for Life.
A kickoff fundraising event will take place Sept. 4, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., at Jerry’s Corner, 61st Street and Passyunk Avenue.
An entrance fee of $10 per family or individual entitles participants to a fun-filled day of games, food, music, drill teams, entertainment, face painting and arts and crafts. The donation also includes a free raffle ticket for a surprise drawing.
The Home Depot, A.C. Moore and Shop Rite are a few of the local merchants that have agreed to donate goods and services for the event.
Ayres’ son Dominic, who inspired Little Dom’s Angels for Life, said he misses his father, but he’s proud of his mother for launching an organization that will help other children in need.
"It’s gonna come out good," he said.
For more information, call Ayres at 267-235-8278. Monetary donations can be sent directly to Little Dom’s Charitable Fund c/o Citizens Bank, 2540 S. 24th St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19145.