NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — Gun violence is a pervasive crisis in Connecticut, destroying lives and impacting families, especially in inner cities. In Hartford, police say there have been seven homicides and 30 shootings with gunshot victims in 2023.

Janet Rice is a crisis interventionist with Compass Youth Collaborative in Hartford. The non-profit connects with high-risk youth, engaging them in relationships to provide opportunities in education, employment, and life. They also respond to every shooting to offer support to families.

On the evening of April 20, Rice was dispatched by Compass to a drive-by shooting with four victims on Huntington Street.

“I never imaged that, never imagined in a million years, getting that call,” Rice said.

She said she was minutes away from the scene when her supervisor called and told her to pull over.

“He proceeded to tell me that the 12-year-old victim was, in fact, my granddaughter,” Rice said. “My whole heart just dropped, and I yelled out Se’Cret.”

Rice says she rushed to the hospital, where Pierce underwent emergency surgery. Tragically, she didn’t make it out of the operating room.

“Everything was just a fog,” Rice said. “I can hear voices, I can hear people crying, and I can hear so much chaos going on. I was just repeating in my head, not again, not again.”

This is not her first time losing a loved one to gun violence. Ten and a half years ago, she lost her son and Pierce’s father, Shane Oliver.

“This is not about him,” Rice said. “This is about Se’Cret. This is about a 12-year-old being shot and killed. This is not about my son. This is about my granddaughter.”

Se’Cret Pierce (Family provided photo)

Rice has been fighting for change in Hartford for years.

“We need to show the young people there’s more to life,” Rice said. “There’s a different way of conflict resolution. You don’t have to go to the gun.”

Compass Youth Collaborative is actively working to reduce violence by connecting with youth. Diego Lopez is a Compass team leader, spending 13 years on the job. He grew up in Hartford and knows the struggle of the streets. Lopez said he used to be in a gang, got in trouble for dealing drugs, and served a 16-year prison sentence.

“I’m a four-time gunshot victim myself,” he said. “I got nine bullet holes in my body. Gun violence to me has been normalized.”

Lopez is trying to change that in the city. He refers to his job on the streets as “life-saving work.”

“I think we need more people like us that are going to go out there, pull these kids out of these dangerous situations, believe in them, put hope in them,” he said. “If you do that and I think we’d be in a better place.”

Compass has a team of 10 Peacebuilders, a small but mighty group. They drive through the city, providing meals, clothing, rides to school, advice, or mentorship.

“Every time we see groups of young people, we’ll pull over,” Lopez said. “We jump out, have conversations.”

Jaheem Wilson, 20, said he got into some trouble a few years ago and was influenced by violence in the community. His mother reached out to Compass to get help. 

“I was going down the wrong road and stuff like that,” Wilson said. “I lost my father growing up. She just wanted me to have a male figure in my life.”

That’s when Wilson was paired up with Compass mentor Brian Evans. They admit their friendship got off to a rocky start, but Evans consistently showed up for Wilson to show him a better way.

“I think he started to trust me more, and then our relationship just took off,” Evans said. “He’s around my kids. He’s around my family, so I’m not just telling him; I’m showing him. I’m encouraging him when he makes mistakes. I’m not talking about the mistakes. I’m talking about how we can move forward.”

Wilson said Evans changed his life.

“He gives me motivation because he cares so much,” Wilson said. “He wants to see me do well.”

Compass’ mission is clear — build a support system and create opportunities for youth while pushing for peace in the community. Compass is partially funded through grants by Dalio Education, a philanthropic organization started by one of the wealthiest families in Connecticut.

Rice strongly believes in Compass’ mission for her granddaughter.

“I will not stop doing what I’m doing,” she said. “We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing. We’re going to continue pushing and trying to save as many lives as we can.”

Click on these links to learn more about Compass Youth Collaborative and Dalio Education.

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Tune in to News 8 at 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. Thursday to watch part two of this special report, which focuses on the thousands of young people slipping through the cracks and a non-profit saving lives. Watch the video below for a preview.