The small crowd of smiling teens circled Rae'Chelle Hall — young strangers compelled to comfort a mother suffering a tragedy she still can't understand.
They asked to meet her outside Hennepin County Medical Center on Monday, where Hall's 22-month-old baby Rae'Ana struggles to recover from a severe head injury and many broken bones inflicted by the girl's father. Hall promised not to cry, but it was too late for several of the teens as tears filled their eyes.
The high school students cooed as Hall showed pictures of her baby on her cellphone. After they gave Hall a group hug and care package of stuffed animals and cards, she offered an apology.
"I wish you could come inside and see my baby, but I'm only allowed a small guest list," she said. "But as soon as Rae'Ana can walk again, I'll bring her to your school for a visit."
Doctors gave Hall's baby little hope to survive when she was brought to the emergency room on Jan. 3. The long list of injuries, which occurred during a few hours, included a traumatic brain injury, broken ribs, a fractured pelvis, a lacerated spleen and kidney, and multiple hemorrhages. The father, Ticortier Collins, 21, was charged with first-degree assault and sits in jail in lieu of $1 million bail.
Hall tempered her anger as the teens showered her with kind words and thoughtful questions. They were particularly horrified that an apparently caring father could cause his child such pain.
"That little baby didn't deserve [it]. Her mom didn't deserve it," said Jia Lewis, who was joined at the hospital by 15 other members of Minneapolis Edison High School's Black Student Leadership Council. "MLK Day is a service day. And it was time for us to reach out and show her love from the community."
The group also wanted to shine a light on a violent crime that doesn't always reach the public's attention, said Sheron Bell, another student from the council. A teacher who became very emotional reading about the baby's suffering decided to share the story with the 40 students on the council.
"We didn't know about Rae'Ana's story," Bell said. "It had to be brought to us."
Then came the desire to present Hall with a care package. The teens could have just let their teacher take it to her, but they agreed it would be more meaningful if young community members delivered it. Once hospital security got a message to Hall about the students' offer, she took less than 10 minutes to answer with a definite "yes." And then she started to cry.
"I'm not a person who asks for much," Hall said. "It's nice that people wanted to support me. This touches me."
Hall candidly engaged the students, offering a detailed report of Rae'Ana's condition. She worried that she would have to reteach her baby "everything," but her prayers came through. One student found it amazing that a 2-year-old could fight so hard to get better.
"We had to let you know that you're not alone," one student said.
"She's my world," Hall responded.
The baby's breathing tube was removed four days ago, and her eyes are now open all of the time. She says "mama" and "oh, oh," and will start therapy to get her legs back in shape, Hall said.
Hall didn't shy away when the teens asked about Collins and their now-strained relationship. The couple is expecting another child in late summer. Hall had been at work when she learned that Collins had taken Rae'Ana to the hospital. They prayed over their daughter. "He was there for her when she was hurting, when she was happy or sad," she said. "But he's the one that put her in this condition."
Charges filed against Collins said he gave police numerous excuses about what happened to Rae'Ana. Hall said she would have more respect for him if he admitted what he did.
"Ultimately, he will have to answer to God," she said. "I hope my baby won't remember what happened to her."
Hall thanked the students again, and together, they embraced her.