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Empowered youth take a stand against gun violence and confront trauma

As summer approaches, a season known for its spike in violence in Chicago and many other cities, young people are fighting back with art and sports.
Empowered youth take a stand against gun violence and confront trauma
Posted at 7:32 PM, May 14, 2023

Within the past year, nearly half of American teenagers have experienced some type of violence (44%). There is a sense that more teenagers across the country are both committing and falling victim to violent crime. 

Scripps News profiled a teenager in Chicago who is bucking the trend. 

How is this person keeping their life on track even as crime swirls around them? 

As the summer approaches, a season known for its spike in violence in Chicago and many other cities, young people are fighting back against violence with fire and baseball bats. 

Deaunata Holman says the first time he tried glassblowing, he was nervous.

"I didn't know what I was doing! And it was so hot too. I'm a clumsy type of guy," said Holman.

Holman started with Firebird Community Arts more than 10 years ago, after he was shot.

"Before I got shot, I was not caring, bruh. I ain't care about nothing — where I was at, who I was talking to," said Holman.

Firebird Community Arts works with students who have been injured by gun violence. The program combines counseling, mentorship, and glass blowing to help teens work through trauma.

Karen Reyes has been executive director here for 11 years.

"It both attracts young people, because young people are attracted to risk and danger. It's exciting, sort of releases that adrenaline. But it also forms like a mandate to keep each other safe," said Reyes.

Dr. Brad Stolbach co-founded Firebird, originally known as Project Fire, back in 2014.

"Even just watching people make stuff out of class, you get totally drawn in. It's mesmerizing," said Stolbach. "And one of the key parts of recovery from trauma is helping people be in the present."

And while the Firebird program deals with people directly impacted by gun violence, you don't have to be injured to feel the effects of community violence.

"Our kids are dealing with this, whether they're street involved or not... If you live in a neighborhood where there's a realistic expectation that somebody is going to get killed or that you could get hurt, you know, that affects your day-to-day, everything that you do every day, that's in the background," said Stolbach.

SEE MORE: Study shows teen girls are engulfed by 'sadness, violence and trauma'

After a turbulent two years of increased violence across the country, the number of homicides is moving in the right direction. In Chicago, shootings and murders are down to their lowest levels since 2019.

Still, guns are the leading cause of death for children and teens nationwide — more than car crashes and cancer. Within the past year, nearly half of American teenagers say they have personally experienced violence.

Across the city, on the South Side of Chicago, Lavonte Stewart is hoping to grab kids before it's too late.

"It starts taking a toll. It starts adding up. I should be collecting baseball cards, not obituaries, and each of these young people meant something to me personally," said Stewart.

Stewart's organization, Lost Boyz, works to prevent youth violence through sports.

Lost Boyz hosts its own baseball leagues with boys’ and girls’ teams while providing mentorship and therapy to its participants.

"It's amazing; I can't even find the right word to describe what it's like having the right coaches and mentors around that are walking them through it, sticking with them, encouraging them, showing them, and then they start seeing their own progress and development. And they're like, I did that?" said Stewart.

Stewart says sports serve as the gateway to everything else that is healthy and positive.

"They're receptive because of the sport, and they're connected with the coach; now they're developing a bond, so now they trust the coach... I trust you to tell me about the political structures that exist in my community. I trust you to educate me on my emotions and how I learn to regulate them, and teach me exercises," said Stewart.

As the Firebird and Lost Boyz programs have expanded, former participants often stick around and become full-time employees.

"Probably 50% of the current staff are program alumni," said Stewart.

Creating a pipeline to not only grow the programs but also impact more kids.

"I'm excited to figure out who's going to take over after me. And I think it needs to be somebody who has some more lived experience. Like, the folks that we serve," said Reyes.

Holman, now a staffer at Firebird, says creating art offered him a joy he never had on the streets, and he wants to pass that along to the kids coming behind him.

"That's my success story right there for me, like I realized just the joy like seeing something come out [of the fire], and the reality is when you in them streets, not a lot of people come out. I’m just winning right now," said Holman.


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