Community programs combat gun violence by counseling city’s youth

Gun violence in Philadelphia has gone up in the last five years, making programs to help children and teens cope with violence essential.

When Emanuel Frames first learned on Instagram that his friend was fatally shot, he struggled to convince himself the news was true. 

“It’s crazy how people can go that fast,” said Frames, a 17-year-old high school sophomore. “I just seen this man yesterday, talking to him and all that and out of nowhere he just died.” 

Philadelphia has experienced record-shattering levels of gun violence in the past five years, and for children and teenagers, the crisis has manifested in more places than just the city’s streets. For many, the violence has compromised school attendance, mental health and personal safety. 

COVID-19 restrictions disrupted education and employment opportunities for youth, which are risk factors associated with crime and contributed to an increase in youth violence, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 

Community organizations across the city are working to help kids amid the crisis and prevent youth violence by offering programs that provide mentorship, connecting children to adults who serve as positive role models and provide protective community environments. 

The fear of experiencing violence at school prevents kids from attending classes and leads to negative mental health effects like depression, anxiety and panic disorders, according to a 2021 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association Network.

Increases in gun violence also contribute to a rise in youth violence, a public health issue where youth ages 10 to 24 use physical force or power to threaten or harm others, disproportionately affecting Black youth and young adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The issue can stunt development, contribute to poor decision-making, learning challenges, difficulties connecting with others and managing stress

Police statistics indicate that by mid-November 2021, there were more minors fatally wounded than in all of 2020. Additionally, 30 minors were arrested for gun homicides last year, which is six times more than in 2019, Chalkbeat Philadelphia reported.

After an argument with his step-father, Frames considered leaving his home in frustration, even if it meant violating his house arrest.

Instead, he called his court liaison, La’Cinda Trotter, and she sent a coworker to drive Frames around for two hours as he decompressed.

“If I would have left, I would have got locked up,” Frames said.

Gun violence is common in Frames’ Francisville neighborhood and makes him feel like he needs to be on guard. However, he does not want to move away and leave his family behind, especially because he helps take care of his 4-year-old brother, he said. 

“I don’t want to just, like, move and then my mom and them still down here struggling,” Frames said. 

Dreams by Langston Hughes is displayed on an exterior wall of Martin Luther King High School on April 28. | GRACIE HEIM / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Archye Leacock initially founded the Institution for the Development of African American Youth in 1991 to help Black students get into college. In 1997, he expanded IDAAY to help youth offenders, teaching kids leadership and communication skills to compensate for the systemic circumstances that contribute to crime, like underfunded schools. 

“Over the last couple of years I’m like ‘Wait, we’re supposed to be improving and supposed to be helping the system, where we are is actually worse,’” said Leacock, the executive director of IDAAY and a 1991 master of public administration Temple University alumnus. 

IDAAY currently runs multiple programs with the shared mission of providing the city’s youth a safe educational environment, including Don’t Fall Down in the Hood and Intensive In-Home Supervision Program, both of which work with youth charged with a crime and provide them with therapy. 

Leacock is optimistic that IDAAY can bring positive change to people’s lives despite the fact that it hasn’t always worked for everyone and some kids who participate in the program continue getting into trouble.  

IDAAY measures success on an individual basis. If a child completes their program and makes a positive change in their lifestyle and does not continue committing crimes, then the program was effective.

This concept — providing youth with safe spaces and activities after school and during the summer to keep them from committing more crimes — is not new. The first program aimed at reforming youth offenders was the New York House of Refuge, founded in 1825, which housed youth convicted of petty crimes and provided them with education, according to the New York State Education Department.  

Summer youth development and employment programs are proven to reduce violence because they provide young people with access to tools and skill sets that prepare them for the workforce and additional household income, according to research from Everytown for Gun Safety. 

Caring People’s Alliance, a nonprofit that runs social programs for all ages, has existed for nearly a century and its main program, the Boys & Girls Club which educates children from low-income backgrounds, currently has locations throughout Philadelphia.

The organization initially began as an effort to support youth affected by the Great Depression in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, it seeks to teach compassion through activities, like caring for small animals, and supplementary academic lessons in subjects like STEM in the summer, said Branon Gilmore, the senior director of Programs and Service Deliverables and a 1996 Temple business alumnus.  

CPA is open whenever schools are closed, including federal holidays and summer break to keep kids safe and educate them year-round, Gilmore said. 

“We do not replicate schools after school,” Gilmore said. “All of our training tells us that kids are stressed out all day, they don’t need to come to an after-school program and sit down all day.”

Currently, 382 kids are enrolled in CPA’s programs and the organization administers pre- and posts-tests at the beginning and end of the school year and requests copies of report cards to see if their programs are helping kids academically, Gilmore said.

ASAP Philly provides roughly 300 after-school and summer activities like chess, Scrabble, theater and debate through the city’s public and charter schools and libraries to provide a positive environment and help kids improve academic skills, like reading and writing, said Justin Ennis, the executive director. 

ASAP Philly also created a directory of other after-school and summer programs to inform parents of all their options so they don’t have to choose between working and taking care of their children, Ennis said. 

“One piece of the puzzle to help reduce violence for kids in every school is to give them more places to go, to connect them with caring adults and mentors, particularly at a young age, and sustain those opportunities to reduce the risk that they are going to get lured into other less positive peer groups,” Ennis said. 

Educational and recreational programming for youth are proven to reduce violence because they provide kids with an outlet to express and understand their emotions, not just busywork, Gilmore said.

In addition to serving as a court liaison, Trotter runs Intensive In-Home Supervision Program, mainly working with youth ages 13 to 20 who were arrested and enrolled in the program by court order as an alternative to serving time in prison. 

As she aims to help children in the program change their lifestyles, she wants to make them feel loved and supported, rather than judged, so the children will feel comfortable in group discussions, she said.

Creating a judgment-free environment is crucial for building relationships with kids that receive therapy or counseling, said Emily DeCarlo, the Youth Violence Outreach program director at the  Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia, a service that works with schools and community sites to provide youth with therapy and teach conflict resolution skills.

“It is important, too, that we are value neutral, that we’re not judging the kids, that we’re not projecting any kind of value system onto them, that they can come to us, tell us what’s going on with them and we are still their advocate” DeCarlo said.

For YVO, success is measured through a 10-question pre-survey when youth join the group and a post-survey as they’re leaving in order for the program’s coordinators to measure significant changes like a decrease in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms or an increase in resiliency, DeCarlo said. 

“We want to decrease the PTSD and then also increase protective factors,” she said, “So, positive peer relationships, extracurriculars, adults they can go talk to, things they engage in whatever that means for them.”

Because youth are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic and issues like gun violence simultaneously, feelings of loss and grief are exacerbated, according to a U.S. Surgeon General Advisory from December 2021

At least 200,000 children in the U.S. lost at least one parent because of COVID-19 as of May 12, according to data from the Imperial College London.

To effectively prevent violence, youth need compassionate adults in their lives, positive communities, mentors and quality education at a young age, according to the CDC.

The loss and grief the city’s youth experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t normal and they needed a space to fully process those feelings and talk through them, said April Lancit, the clinical coordinator at Martin Luther King High School, located on Stenton Avenue near Haines Street. 

Lancit and her case manager began hosting town halls in classrooms to give students an opportunity to speak about their feelings as part of STEP, a mental health program run by the School District of Philadelphia. These talks eventually resulted in students gathering in Lancit’s office every other Thursday for group sessions, where they sit in a circle and discuss topics like depression, anxiety and psychoeducation, which involves noticing the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“WE HAVE A DREAM” is displayed on a gazebo at Martin Luther King High School at the corner of Stenton Avenue and Haines Street on April 28. | NOEL CHACKO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Through the group meetings, students have related with each other over similar life experiences, Lancit said. 

“The students end up connecting with one another because they realize they lost a grandparent or they lost a friend or they lost someone similar,” Lancit said. “And so a lot of the students were kind of consoling each other or saying ‘I just went through something similar.’” 

In her three months enrolled in the Intensive In-Home Supervision Program, Justise Stephens knows she’s found a confidant in Trotter and an emotional outlet in the program.

“This program is just really an outlet for a lot of people,” said Stephens, a 15-year-old high school freshman. “You can always speak your mind and always be able to, you know, say how you feel.” 

Creating environments where youth can explore and process their emotions helps them cope better with emotions like anger and grief, Counseling Today reported.

At MLK, Lancit has seen a “narrative shift,” where students are more comfortable seeking help and sharing their feelings and experiences. Groups, like STEP, are important to have in Philadelphia, especially as gun violence increases and with it, the trauma. 

“We are a city that is is filled with toxic stress and it isn’t just gun violence,” Lancit said. “It’s poverty, it’s racism, it’s social inequalities, like there’s a lot of different things that are impacting our students and I think anyone that’s coming in to serve our students, they need to understand that this is the life that they have been living.”

The Temple News is a student affiliate of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic mobility. This story is part of the series The Toll: The Roots and Costs of Gun Violence in Philadelphia.