Scared to Death: Program Takes Kids To Funeral Homes

A California football coach decided the only way to teach kids the severity of death is to show them the realities of dying. Coach Todd Walker's Restoring Inner-city Peace (R.I.P.) program brings kids from the streets to funeral homes. The coach and an athlete discuss how the program affects youths.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, tips for surviving the stock market. Our money coach will help. But first, gang violence and juvenile death are like a shroud over some areas of Oakland, California. It has become an all too familiar situation for one man who came up with a plan to un-glamorize images of gang life and to show instead the realities of death.

Youth football coach Todd Walker started the Restoring Inner-city Peace project last year. He takes children as young as six years old to funeral homes to show them the consequences of gang and youth violence, and he joins us today from the Baker Williams Funeral Home in West Oakland. With him is 17-year-old Alger Miles(ph), a high school student who went through the program after spending six months in jail. We start first with Coach Walker. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. TODD WALKER (Founder, Restoring Inner-city Peace): Thank you.

CORLEY: Coach Walker, can you explain this program for me? And what exactly are you trying to do by taking children to funeral homes?

Mr. WALKER: We're trying to get the kids to think about what they're doing. And you've got a lot of kids running around here and they're glamorized and dying. And so bringing them into the mortuary, you know, I don't show them bodies but just the fact that they in the mortuary and they know that bodies is in here and this is where you come to after the hail of bullets.

CORLEY: Can you go through the exact steps of what you do on the tour? What do you show these young children?

Mr. WALKER: I pull out a casket, a gurney, a cremation box, which I make them stand in. Basically, I make them touch inside the casket; I show them how a gurney is broke down. I show them how, you know, you pick them up from the corner strap them down, bring them in, tag them.

CORLEY: Is this is an example of kind of like scared straight. You know, we've all heard about those programs where people take children through jails. This is one step further.

Mr. WALKER: Yes. Well, really it's not really to scare them, just to make them think. Because you can scare them and they still can do the same thing, they'll just be afraid. But they still won't learn how to think, and we're trying to teach them how to think. This is not TV. They're not going to get shot 15 times and get up and go home.

CORLEY: And so what kind of response have you gotten, then, from these young men as you've been taking them through the funeral home?

Mr. WALKER: It touches whoever comes in, you know. And kids, you know, they're kids so you know each other play like, you know, it's not affecting them, it's not hard. But when they leave, they get home, you know, you talk to them later on, they get away from the crowd and, you know, they express how they really feel and they really do touch them.

CORLEY: Well, I know you have a young man there with you who has gone through this process.

Mr. WALKER: Yes.

CORLEY: Hi, Alger. How are you?

Mr. ALGER MILES (Member, Restoring Inner-city Peace): Hi. I'm fine.

CORLEY: I understand you spent a little time in jail yourself.

Mr. MILES: Yes, I did.

CORLEY: All right. Have you gone through the tour with Mr. Walker?

Mr. MILES: Yes, I have. I've been helping him out and helping him explain to the kids, you know, how serious life is and you can't take it as a joke, you know, just really telling the kids about my experience.

CORLEY: And what has been your experience?

Mr. MILES: You know, I trusted a person that ended up having a gun with them one night. We were on our way to a party, we get pulled over, you know, and they find a gun that I didn't know about in my car. And it's my car and I'm the licensed driver, so they pin the gun on me so I do six months in jail. And I really stress to the kids, you know, that everybody in the streets is not cool with you.

CORLEY: Well, Mr. Walker says that he is running this program to show young people like you and those younger than you what can happen when violence is sort of glamorized. And I was wondering if your friends would participate in something like that.

Mr. MILES: I think they would but they have to see other young people get into it, you know. A lot of young people nowadays are afraid to be leaders, you know, and care a lot about how other people think and how other people see of them. As more and more people come, the more I come and the more closer people to me come, then they'll start to come.

CORLEY: You think this is more effective right now, though, for younger children?

Mr. MILES: Right at this moment, yeah. I think the most important is the younger kids, you know, just make them serious about life, you know. Their kids, they're supposed to have fun. But you want them to also be aware that life is a serious thing and it's so easy to lose.

CORLEY: You're listening to TELL ME MORE. I'm Cheryl Corley and we're speaking with youth football coach Todd Walker and 17-year-old Alger Miles.

Some kids are very young when they come to the funeral home. As I understand it, some as young as six. What kind of reactions do you get from the really young children and also from their parents?

Mr. WALKER: It is amazing because they pay more attention than some of the 16-year-olds. You know, they're full of attention because, you know, really, they haven't been poisoned to the street life yet. You got kids eight, nine years old that probably been to about 10 homicide funerals. So when we bring them in here, you know, basically, we're letting them know: Whatever you hear, you got your own mind. So one boy, he came to the football program when he was 11 and he got gunned down the day after we had practice; practiced on a Saturday, July 1st, and July 2nd he got gunned down…

CORLEY: You know, that's terrible.

Mr. WALKER: …mistaken identity.

CORLEY: That's terrible.

Mr. WALKER: Fourteen years old.

CORLEY: Yeah. I understand, Coach Walker, that you were looking to extend the program and want to start taking children to other places, not just funeral homes.

Mr. WALKER: Right.

CORLEY: What do you have in mind?

Mr. WALKER: Take them to the juvenile courts and let them see how they charge the 14-, 15-year-olds as adults. Juveniles, convalescent homes, churches, teach them different aspects of life, you know, that they might not never get a chance to see.

CORLEY: And so you're deciding to step in and take charge in that way.

Mr. WALKER: Yes. Yes.

CORLEY: All right. Well, thank you so much, sir, for your time.

Mr. WALKER: Thank you.

CORLEY: Todd Walker runs the Restoring Inner-city Peace project in Oakland, California, and he brings troubled youth off the streets and into a funeral home to learn about the consequences of gang violence and the importance of good decision-making.

Also joining us was Alger Miles, who is 17 and participates in Walker's program. They joined us today from the Baker Williams Funeral Home in Oakland, California. Thank you for speaking with us today.

Mr. WALKER: Okay. Thank you for having us.

CORLEY: And now we'd like to hear from you. Do you think scared straight tactics like this work or are they too extreme? Would you send your child to a morgue or funeral home if you thought it would help stop bad behavior? To tell us what you think about this or other segments on this program, go to our blog at npr.org/tellmemore.

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