On a spring day, a group of elementary school students and their companions walk down a sidewalk in the Lyell-Otis neighborhood of Rochester, NY. A few blocks away is their destination: the after-school program of Cameron Community Ministries.
The atmosphere is good – some children jump or hop – but their path, which they routinely follow, leads past more than a dozen places where murders and serious assaults have taken place in the last ten years.
There’s the block west of here where a 17-year-old boy was shot dead in March, allegedly by a classmate. He is one of at least six minors killed by gunfire since January, according to Rochester Police.
Students cross Otis Street where, six years ago, a father was shot dead one morning while children were coming to school across the street. According to a local newspaper report that day, a neighbor saw dozens of children run into the building “screaming at the top of their lungs”.
Kaila Toppin remembers it – her sister was there.
“The school was suspended because [a student’s] Father was shot.”
Toppin, 19, was a former student on Cameron’s program. Now she’s a chaperon and Phylipp McKnight is one of her protégés. He has been subjected to neighborhood violence and is only in the second grade.
“If you don’t know violence, I’ll teach you now,” he says. “And if you turn 6 like me, I don’t want this dark future that happened to me.”
Many children, like Phylipp, who are regularly exposed to gun violence in the community, can struggle with feelings of hopelessness and fear. They may also have trouble regulating their emotions — all symptoms of post-traumatic stress that can linger into adulthood.
But there are plenty of communities and after-school programs that can help.
Teaching kids that life doesn’t have to end in teenage years
Riana Elyse Anderson, who studies childhood trauma and black families at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, says the key is creating supportive environments for children.
“The more you have supportive structures around you — like family, peers, like adult mentors — the better chance you have… of surviving because you’re active and engaged and maybe in spaces that might be a little safer.”
These supportive structures also help children shed challenging psychological beliefs, such as that life ends in the teenage years or that life has little worth—beliefs that deadly neighborhood shootings can reaffirm.
Anderson says one way to create these supportive structures is through after-school programs that not only supervise children and keep them off the streets, but can also help children and teens learn about their strengths, dreams, and culture. Most importantly, it can help them realize that life is precious.
Cameron Community Ministries’ after-school program accomplishes this through mentoring, field trips and team building activities. Luis Mateo, a youth program director, says he also teaches his students leadership skills, guiding them through community-focused projects and intervening when students are going through something tough — like after the recent mass shooting in nearby Buffalo or after a neighborhood incident.
“I had two kids who were just stunned because a friend of theirs was shot,” Mateo recalls. “He survived but it was still traumatizing… So I’m talking to them, making sure they’re okay while this is going on. And also on this street another child was shot as he got off the bus. So it was a lot of violence and unfortunately they got used to it and it’s just another day in the neighborhood for them.”
Helping kids cope with their harsh reality is important, but Mateo says his youth program also emphasizes giving kids and teens space to be themselves, be safe, and explore their interests.
“There are these after-school programs that help young people find out who they are and what they can do,” Anderson says. “When they turn 18, what do they want to contribute to their neighborhood, to their families, to their culture, to themselves?”
How neighborhood violence and aggression interrupts happiness and joy
Phyllipp McKnight’s mother, Lerhonda McKnight, is one of the few guards at Cameron Community Ministries’ summer cookout in August. She cleans up after the kids and keeps an eye out for mischief – like the boy shaking a soda can and preparing to spray it open.
“Hey! Don’t do that. Don’t do it,” McKnight warns, laughing. “Put it down, let it sit for a few minutes.
Like Kaila Toppin and Phylipp, McKnight grew up surrounded by neighborhood violence. She says she’s been through things she never wants her children to go through, so she stays involved, bringing them to Cameron and making sure they show them love.
“If the kids don’t come [love] at home they go elsewhere to get it. They go to. Whether they find it on the street, whether they find it in a drug store,” says McKnight. “You’re going to find it because everyone needs it — everyone — because that’s what life is about.”
A fight breaks out across the street. There are screams and physical threats. McKnight barely acknowledges it. Here, but not only here, violence and aggression have become as commonplace as bad weather.
Kaila Toppin says she’s seen more than enough of it in a lifetime.
“It makes you happy and cheerful, sometimes it interrupts it. Like in the back of my mind, you know?” says Toppin. “I’m out there having a good time, but sometimes I think something bad might happen because of all the bad things that happen. I don’t know, it makes it different and it makes it a cautious delight too. “
Toppin’s vigilance is a matter of survival. This drives them to protect younger children so they have a chance to experience life after childhood.
This story was originally reported by Noelle EC Evans for WBFO