LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Stories about kids and gun violence often focus on school shootings, but many kids encounter gun violence every day in their communities. Noelle Evans of WXXI takes us to an after-school program in Rochester, N.Y., that aims to help kids feel safe and help them heal. A warning - this story contains strong language.
NOELLE E C EVANS, BYLINE: Last spring, I walked with a group of elementary students and their chaperones along a sidewalk in the Lyell-Otis neighborhood in Rochester. It's sunny. A few blocks away is our destination, Cameron Community Ministries' after-school program. The mood is cheerful. Some of the kids are leaping or skipping. But our path takes them past more than a dozen spots where murders and aggravated assaults have happened in the last decade. They cross Otis Street, where six years ago, a father was shot and killed one morning as children were arriving at school. Kaila Toppin remembers it. She was a student with the program then. Now she's a chaperone.
KAILA TOPPIN: My sister - like, her classmate lived on the street, and the school went into lockdown because his father got shot.
EVANS: Kaila is 19 now. She's seen a lot of violence here. So has one of her students, second-grader Phyllipp McKnight.
PHYLLIPP MCKNIGHT: If you don't know the violence, I'm teaching you right now. And when you become 6 years old like me, I don't want the dark future that happened to me when I grew up.
EVANS: Many children like Phyllipp, who are regularly exposed to gun violence, can struggle with feelings of hopelessness and anxiety. They can also have difficulty regulating their emotions - all symptoms of post-traumatic stress, which can have lasting impacts into adulthood. But there's a lot schools, communities and after-school programs can do to help disrupt cycles of chronic trauma.
RIANA ELYSE ANDERSON: I think certainly we need to be mindful of what we can do to support our young people so that they see their lives as valuable, and they see other people's lives as valuable.
EVANS: Riana Elyse Anderson researches child trauma and Black families at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She says after-school programs can change the trajectory of kids' lives.
ANDERSON: You have these after-school programs that are helping young people just identify who they are. What is it that they can do? What is it that - when they live past 18, what is it that they want to contribute to their neighborhoods, to their families, to their culture, to themselves?
EVANS: After-school programs keep kids supervised and off the street. But intentional programming can also help children and teens learn about their strengths, dreams and culture. It can help them see that life is valuable.
ANDERSON: The more you have supportive structures around you - like family, like peers, like adult mentors - the better chance you have of not only surviving because you're active and engaged and perhaps in spaces that may be a bit safer, but you do have this ability to psychologically come out of more challenging psychological beliefs.
EVANS: Beliefs like life ends in your teens or that life has little value. The Cameron after-school program challenges those beliefs with mentoring, field trips and expressive activities like drumming.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)
EVANS: It also makes space for kids to express their feelings after a neighborhood shooting or the recent mass shooting nearby in Buffalo.
EVANS: I came back to visit Cameron Community Ministries for a summer cookout, where I met second-grader Phyllipp McKnight's mother, Lerhonda. Like Kaila and Phyllipp, Lerhonda also grew up exposed to neighborhood violence. She's been through things she doesn't want her kids to ever experience. So she stays involved. She brings them to Cameron, and she makes sure to show them love.
LERHONDA MCKNIGHT: If the kids don't get it at home, they're going to go somewhere else to get it. They're going to. And whether they find it in the streets, whether they find it in a drug house, you know, they're going to find it because everybody needs it, everybody. That's, like, in life - that's what life is about.
EVANS: We're chatting outside after the cookout. Across the streets, there's a confrontation.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I've got no beef with you.
EVANS: It escalates, with yelling and physical threats.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They did you dirty. They did you dirty.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I want her [expletive] legs broken.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: 'Cause they did you dirty.
EVANS: Lerhonda barely acknowledges the fight. Around here, but not just here, scenes like this have become as commonplace as inclement weather. Kaila Toppin says she's seen more than enough violence and aggression for a lifetime.
TOPPIN: It makes being happy and joyful - like, it interrupts it sometimes. I'm out there having a good time, but sometimes it just makes me think something bad could happen 'cause of all the bad things that happen. It just - I don't know, it makes it different. And it also makes it a cautious joy. Like, I'm very cautious.
EVANS: A cautious joy. Kaila's vigilance is a matter of survival. It's what drives her to protect younger kids so that they have a chance to experience life after childhood.
For NPR News, I'm Noelle Evans in Rochester, N.Y.
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