The first thing everyone noticed about Dawnn Jaffier was her smile.
“It was infectious,” said Carl Thompson, who interviewed Jaffier in the spring of 2013 for a position as the first employee of a Boys & Girls Club branch he was starting up at the Hennigan Elementary School. “From the moment she walked in the room, there was really no question that I was going to hire her. She just had this great energy.”
The 26-year-old woman, whose life friends said was devoted to helping children and teens, was shot and killed about 8:15 a.m. Saturday on Dorchester’s Blue Hill Avenue along the route of the J’ouvert parade, the first part of the annual daylong Caribbean festival.
Police, who said Jaffier was not the intended target of the shooting, are still working to identify the killer. Officers quickly caught three men who fled the scene. Two were interviewed and released without charges; the third, 18-year-old Keith Williams of Dorchester, was set to be arraigned Monday in Dorchester Municipal Court on a charge of unlawful possession of a firearm, according to a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley.
Jaffier’s devotion to her young charges ran deep. When one of her students, 9-year-old Janmarcos Peña, was shot and killed, a devastated Jaffier wept uncontrollably, Thompson recalled.
But before long, Jaffier was back in charge.
“Dawnn was very vocal, very adamant about celebrating his life and not just focusing on his death,” Thompson said. “That really shifted our thinking. We followed her lead on that.”
‘She was one of those people who, even as a teen, you just knew she was going to make the world a better place.’John Leary, a former co-worker
Thompson said Jaffier, who was an alumnus of the Boys & Girls Club and also worked at its West End House, had a gift.
“In this field, you either have it or you don’t, and she had it,” he said. “She could connect with kids on their level . . . They knew she wanted the best for them, but they also knew better than to try and pull anything on her, because she’d seen it all before.”
Even at a young age, Jaffier’s potential was clear.
“She was one of those people who, even as a teen, you just knew she was going to make the world a better place,” said John Leary, who was the athletic director at the West End House in the early 2000s when Jaffier was a teen there. “The younger kids looked up to her, her friends looked up to her, and even staff members looked to Dawnn. Big or small, she was there to help.”
Members of the community groups that Jaffier worked for are enraged by her death, Leary said, because it was clear to them that she was a leading light in a new generation of the service-minded. In addition to their personal grief, he said, they are struggling to come to terms with the loss of Jaffier’s potential.
“Dawnn was special. She didn’t deserve the fate she was given,” an emotional Leary said, calling for her legacy to be carried forward with kindness and community service. “She deserved better. The world deserved better.”
Thompson said that on many days he and Jaffier were the program’s only two employees, struggling to keep up with a large workload and make the nascent program a success.
“It was the two of us trying to keep all the threads together, and her attitude was just amazing,” Thompson said. “She always took the focus off of her and put it on the kids. That spoke volumes to me about the type of person she was.”
Once, when a key donor to the program dropped by with her advisers to evaluate Thompson’s progress, Jaffier came to the rescue. The donor’s group watched her lead about 30 girls in a comically elaborate cheerleading routine.
“She had such command of the room. They were so tuned in to what she wanted,” Thompson said, laughing at the memory. “As soon as we left, the donor turned to me and said, ‘She’s amazing.’ They sensed her power instantaneously.”
When a colleague called Thompson to inform him of Jaffier’s death, he said, he simply did not believe anyone could hurt the endlessly happy and peaceful woman he knew. He grilled his colleague about when and where the shooting took place, and, most of all, why.
“I had a million questions, and you know what? I still do. I’m still there,” he said. “We need answers.”