SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Murders are down in New Orleans this year, bucking a national trend. But Louisiana's rate of firearm homicide is the highest in the country, and about 12 percent of the gun deaths in New Orleans have killed a child. Reporters Keith O'Brien has been looking into the aftermath of those homicides, and has this tragic story of one young boy in New Orleans.
KEITH O'BRIEN, BYLINE: Ka'nard Allen begins his days like most 11-year-old boys, with a mad scramble for the school bus. Today's problem: missing drumsticks for band practice.
TYNIA ALLEN: Ka'nard, you got them? Where you had them at?
O'BRIEN: It's a scene that plays out in homes with children everywhere. The bus is coming. The homework is missing. The library books are due. And though he'd like to find those drumsticks, Ka'nard's just happy to be part of something normal because the last 19 months have been anything but.
Would you mind - can you show me where you were shot? Can you show me where you got hit?
KA'NARD ALLEN: I got shot right here and in my neck - my leg and my neck.
O'BRIEN: Ka'nard was shot the first time in May 2012, on his 10th birthday at his grandmother's house. There were balloons, presents - and then gunfire from an alleged gang member targeting someone else at the party. Ka'nard knew right away what was happening.
KA'NARD ALLEN: 'Cause that's all you heard was shooting.
O'BRIEN: One bullet sliced through his calf. The other grazed his neck, barely missing his skull. And to get help, Ka'nard's mother, Tynia Allen, had to step over the dying body of his 5-year-old cousin, Briana.
TYNIA ALLEN: When I did get to the hospital, the only thing I remember I was able to tell them - they asked me what was his name, when his birthday was. Only thing I was able to respond was today, today. That's all - today.
O'BRIEN: Ka'nard recovered. But a few months later, his father was killed - stabbed. And then, last May at a popular Mother's Day parade, Ka'nard and his mom heard that sound again.
TYNIA ALLEN: It was like a pop. Then you heard another - pop, pop, pop. Everybody started running. I'm just saying, Ka'nard, just run! Run, Ka'nard. Just run!
O'BRIEN: Once more, he'd be shot, grazed across the cheek. Another close call. Nineteen people wounded. But Ka'nard Allen was no longer just a victim; he was now a symbol of the toll of violence in American cities.
RONAL SERPAS: I mean, I wonder what must go through that young boy's mind. He must really be questioning what kind of existence this is for him.
O'BRIEN: Ronal Serpas is the superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department. And he's pleased with the progress his detectives have made this year, busting up street gangs with sweeping indictments.
SERPAS: It is making a difference. It's way too early to claim victory; the crowd goes wild. But these young men are watching this. There's no question in my mind about it. I think that's partially responsible for why we're seeing a reduction in murder this year greater than we've seen in a very long time. And we're already into December now. And murders are down just under 20 percent.
O'BRIEN: Still, violence remains prevalent in New Orleans' poorest neighborhoods - and it's not just here. According to the most recent FBI statistics, homicides were up nearly 10 percent last year in American cities with populations between a half million and a million people. The bullets, inevitably, seem to find a child. And lately, in New Orleans, there's been a spate of tragedies. An 11-year-old girl killed by stray gunfire in her home; a 1-year-old girl shot to death in her nanny's arms; and a 7-month-old boy shot in the head while riding in a car with the intended target, his father.
WANDA BALLIER: It's heart-wrenching. It's a tear-jerker, and it happens every day.
O'BRIEN: Wanda Ballier is the supervisor of Louisiana's multisystemic therapy program in New Orleans. She and her therapists help all sorts of kids. But their clients often have one thing in common - violence in or near the home.
BALLIER: They don't see hope; they don't see sunshine. They don't see bright colors. They don't see yellows and oranges, pinks and blues. They see browns, grays, blacks.
O'BRIEN: Children living in violent neighborhoods are prone to both depression and aggression. And they often struggle in school. But then, what child in these circumstances wouldn't be distracted? In recent months, Ballier has worked with a 16-year-old boy who's been shot multiple times.
BALLIER: He's healing. And we are supporting him and his family, and he is motivated to go back to school. He's motivated to beat the system, to be a success. To me, he said: Ms. Ballier, I'm going to make my mom proud. And I say, you've already made her proud.
KA'NARD ALLEN: Oh no, he touched.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Oh, you touched it, you touched it. No, you can't hit me when you're touching.
KA'NARD ALLEN: I touched.
O'BRIEN: As much as Ka'nard wants to be just a boy, just a fifth-grader playing ball with his friends, he has had his problems, too. He struggled in school last year. He misses his father. And then there were the fears, all too real, that someone was trying to kill him - and might come finish the job.
KA'NARD ALLEN: It affected me by - because I was scared that people were going to try to come get me or something. And I thought people was coming to my house and trying to come get me, 'cause they walked in, they see my address on the news.
O'BRIEN: Therapy has helped Ka'nard. And a new school, this fall, has helped, too. Administrators at Samuel J. Green Charter School say Ka'nard's thriving. But he's also been luckier than most kids scarred by violence, thanks to the high-profile nature of the shootings that injured him.
BIVIAN SONNY LEE III: I had two state representatives that reached out to me, actually, and told me that I should accept Ka'nard into our program; you know, go try to find him, reach out to him. So, I reached out to him two days later.
O'BRIEN: Bivian "Sonny" Lee III is the founder of Son of a Saint, a nonprofit mentoring program in New Orleans for boys with no fathers. He took Ka'nard in last spring, giving him positive male role models, structure in the form of weekly French lessons, and other activities.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)
O'BRIEN: On a recent Saturday, Ka'nard and a few other boys gathered at Cascade Stables, in New Orleans, for an afternoon of horseback riding.
BARBE SMITH: Let's go trot, guys. Tell him, Ka'nard; say trot.
O'BRIEN: Barbe Smith is the owner of the stables, and has watched Ka'nard for months.
SMITH: He's so much happier now, since Sonny. When he first came out here, he wouldn't talk to anybody; and he was real quiet. And now, he's just a regular kid, which is really cool to see for us.
O'BRIEN: Today, Smith decides, it's time for something new.
SMITH: Ka'nard, want to learn to canter? Want to learn to canter?
O'BRIEN: An instructor pulls Ka'nard and his horse, Clipper, aside. But the boy isn't so sure about cantering - a speed between a trot and a gallop.
KA'NARD ALLEN: No, that's scary.
UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR: Do it. It's OK.
SMITH: You can do it, I swear.
UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR: You can do it.
KA'NARD ALLEN: OK.
O'BRIEN: Ka'nard hesitates, at first, in the saddle. Twice, he almost has Clipper going, but he pulls back on the reins. Then, on the third try, he gets it.
SMITH: There you go, buddy. Good. Good. Good. Pull back a little. Yay, Ka'nard. Good for you.
O'BRIEN: For the rest of the afternoon, Ka'nard can't stop smiling. And there are other reasons to be happy. After the New Year, Son of a Saint is flying him and seven other boys to Canada, Montreal, so they can practice the French they've been learning. Ka'nard's scared about his first airplane trip, but also excited to leave New Orleans, to see a new place, see the world from above. He wonders what it will feel like to fly. For NPR News, I'm Keith O'Brien in New Orleans.