A life near gunfire: teens cope with violence

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Decreasing gun violence in South Bend has become the focus on an entire city commission.

But while elected officials and leaders try to come up with a plan, teenagers are faced with criminal activity going on around them on a regular basis. Still, there are some who have managed to find a source of inspiration to see what is possible beyond their surroundings.

Ieshia Mason sits in her classroom at The Crossing, where she started last fall. Her stare is fixated on the computer screen, focused on her assignment. Her behavior is a far cry from the kind of students she used to be.

“I was just in the wrong crowd, not doing my work,” Mason said. “Home wasn't really the best at the time.”

Now, she has found the drive to do better.

“You get support from all your teachers,” Mason said. “They try to find someone you're comfortable talking to.”

She knows that many people her age in South Bend are struggling to succeed in the classroom because of what happens outside of school.

“It is hurting our community, people’s families and their friends because they are losing loved ones,” she said.

It is a reality that teens are forced to deal with.

“You go to class and this person may have sat in that class with you and they are no longer here because of what happened,” Mason said.

An empty desk acts as an eerie reminder of those lost.

“You need to be like, ‘Hey that has to stop because one day that could be you,’” she said. “That could be me tomorrow,that could be me within five minutes.”

Last year showed that the cycle of violence was claiming the lives of young people far too often.

The attached map highlights the shootings Newscenter 16 has covered since just September 2012.

Clusters of shootings illustrate the plight of some neighborhoods. A closer look at Western Avenue reveals 11 reports of shots fired on or just off this road.

“These kids are seeing this kind of violence on a daily basis,” said Jacob Hughes, a minister. “But, there needs to be something shaping their mind on what is going on.”

Police tape blocking off scenes where the victims, and in some instances those pulling the trigger, were just teenagers.

These shootings killed Chris Simril, Kenneth Horton, Charles Roberts and Jhaelon Johnson. None of them made it past the age of 18.

“A lot of our young people are in survival mode so they assimilate to whatever they are going to be most comfortable with,” said Kintae Lark. “Unfortunately, a lot of times it is the street.”

At the Inspiration Barber Shop, the conversation turns to what it is like for the children growing up in homes so close to violence.

“Their major influence is what is going on right there - shots fired,” Hughes said. “Your homeboy that you are chilling with talking about shots fired. Instead of being influenced by parents, you are influenced by them.”

“If i'm looking at my mom lives a certain way, my dad live a certain way, then the people I try to look up to…my best influence is neighborhood drug dealer,” said Terry Vaughn, a pastor. “My best option is basketball or football. If I’m not good, then I’m saying ‘What do I have to look forward to?’”

It is a missing piece - a person to show them what is possible.

“Show them that we love them, show them that we care about them,” Lark said. “Otherwise, they are going to grow up and become more hardened. They are going to end up either six feet underground or in somebody's cell.”

PART TWO:

Things like what school staff calls family time take down some of the barriers between students and teachers and make breakthroughs with even the tough students.

“They want to see you do good but they know it makes you feel better when you do when you do what you need to do,” explained student Iesha Mason.

Iesha has is one of the students that have gone from struggling to standing out. Thanks, in part, to one-on-one attention from her teacher.

“Iesha is one of the students that I’ve focused on,” said teacher Jessica Lyons. “And it’s been neat to go have coffee have her over for dinner or go to basketball game. Things that make it about more than just school.”

Lyons and the other teachers get their students to fill their time on positive activities -- instead of on the streets.

That includes getting kids real job experience at places like the Kroc.

Take sot: mackenzie fantetti, crossing student:55.48 “I did maintenance and cleaned,” said student Mackenzie Fantetti. “It makes me feel good to know that my school gave me the opportunity. Once I do turn of age, I can apply there.”

It's the kind of thing former Irish coach Digger Phelps started pushing for at community meetings last year.

“They see the other options in the game of life and they're ready to play,” said Phelps. “They've seen hope, they've visualized what hope can bring to the and because of options we show them they can win.”

And while police lights light up some streets too frequently, Phelps says it’s about reaching out to the kids face-to-face.

I think that's how we have to approach it,” he added. “Go neighborhood by neighborhood. Give these kids another direction. Drugs aren't going away, violence isn't going away. You gotta get them before they're 11 or 12.”

And now, the dream team mentor program that Phelps founded is getting some TLC.

The South Bend Education Foundation will be at the reins -- ready to recruit more mentors.

“It is just critical that this program happens,” described executive director Susan Warner.

At Perley Primary, kids get weekly visits from mentors.

Susan Warner meets with fourth grader Izzy Frank.

Between reading and just catching up about the weekend, the two have built a bond.

“It’s so important that you hear from another adult and not just parents,” said Warner. “That you have that future thinking hoping and interest. Have to talk about it early on.”

The time Warner takes to meet with Frank has left an impression.

“It’s fun to have someone come that doesn't come for someone else they come for exactly you,” said Frank.

And, it's that sense of empowerment that Warner says can make a child turn into a young adult on the right path.

“They may be thinking day to day and if you can get them to get past that... Give them hope for the future. Mentors do that. Surround child with resources and hope for the future,” she said.

At the table next to them is another mentor-mentee duo.

It's Warner's hope that this becomes a common sight at schools throughout South Bend.

“Time is long past for something like that to happen,” she said. “The more people that are willing to come to be a positive force on our children the better our community will be. We all live in our community it’s going to be a as good as we make it.”


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