The sneaker is the starting point for the story Manny Oliver wants to tell about the joyous, interrupted life of his 17-year-old son, and the lives of too many others that were abruptly ended by gun violence.
Months before Joaquin Oliver was killed last February in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, he convinced his dad to coach his recreation league basketball team. “I don’t have any skills to coach basketball,” Oliver admits. But he told his son: “I can certainly do that for you.”
Joaquin, he says, “had a plan. He said, ‘You have to draft these guys, and then I’ll take care of the rest.'”
Joaquin signed up his friends, and the team began play in fall 2017. His last game — they won — was February 13, 2018, the night before a former student fatally shot Joaquin and 16 other students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Joaquin’s team would later win the league championship without him. Now, the sneaker Joaquin wore on the basketball court is the first artifact of what his dad envisions as a visual archive of left-behind items curated by friends and relatives of gun violence victims. The aim is to honor the deceased — and allow the deceased to aid the push to end gun violence.
Oliver calls it the Museum of Incomplete.
He asks survivors to consider: “‘What is it that’s incomplete in the lives of my loved one?’ And that could be anything” — a favorite food left uneaten, a purchased piece of clothing left unworn, artwork or other projects in the midst of creation, diplomas and degrees never received, a letter or email begun but left unsent.
“We know our loved ones better than anyone, so we know what is really that thing that we’re missing and they were not able to finish,” he says.
After their son died, Manny, 51, an artist, and his wife, Patricia, 52, a project manager, committed themselves to activism by founding ChangeTheRef.org in their son’s memory to “empower our next generation so they can fight for their values, have their voices heard, and impact change.” Specifically, the organization uses “urban art and nonviolent creative confrontation to expose the disastrous effects of the mass shooting pandemic.”
The Museum of Incomplete extends that effort by inviting others to submit artifacts, images and stories of lost loved ones. “This is a way to honor them and bring them back and share their stories, so we can know more about them,” he says.
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“As an artist, I do understand the power of sending the message the right way,” he says. “I’ve done this way before I lost my beautiful son. The thing is, now I have a new mission.”
“When I lost Joaquin, the president of the league called me. He said, ‘Hey Mr. Oliver, it might be really hard for you, we understand your pain, do you want us to assign another coach?’ And I said no, I promised my son that we will win this season and I have to finish.”
“And that’s what we did. We won the season. That’s a perfect example of what an incomplete mission is. And it’s not fair that my son wasn’t able to finish what he wished so bad.”
“When I lost my son, my son didn’t lose me. I’m still Joaquin’s dad and I need to find ways to share with him my new life. I understand that some people haven’t been able to do that. I respect that,” he says.
“But on the other hand, I’ve been able to feel the power of doing what we do. It’s important for us to bring the perspective from the victims, so I decided as a parent that my son will be an activist and not a victim.”
Through the online Museum of Incomplete, “I believe that people will find stories that connect with them. The more stories we have, the more connections we will find, and maybe, maybe, the visitor will be able to understand better that this could happen to him or her at any time. These are random tragedies that could hit anybody.”