HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) – Gun violence is the leading cause of death for youth in the U.S. In some neighborhoods, children face that threat daily, but there is hope in Connecticut.
There are a group of adults in Hartford, some with chequered pasts, that have found their way to a better life. Now, they are helping kids do the same.
Hartford – the Capitol City – is just about 18 square miles, but big enough for some big-city problems. Street gangs, drugs and gun violence are a recipe for disaster.
The city’s youth are trapped with no way out and only one alternative – survival.
A community organization called COMPASS Youth Collaborative decided to set up a safe haven for teens. Inside, 6-year-old Lexlian Rosa can be seen hard at work.
Lexlian is part of a summer program that researches why students are disengaged at school.
“It shocked me that a lot of kids, they did really care about school, but what stopped them from going was violence,” Lexlian said. “The fact that we’re having to deal with growing up and at the same time, having to work about being safe, what we’re going to eat, where we’re going to live, is my sibling safe, is my family safe.”
Some students have to walk past crime scenes on their way to school.
“It makes me feel sad, but it also makes me feel uncomfortable because me as a 16-year-old, I shouldn’t have to deal with any of that,” she said. “Students shouldn’t have to be going through any of that.”
COMPASS staff identifies those at-risk for gun violence and pairs them up with mentors called “peacebuilders.” Some are ex-gang members and convicted felons sharing their insights and street life experiences.
Peacebuilders make themselves available 24/7 so they can show up when teens need them most: at the hospital, a crime scene or a front door. They focus on healing the trauma before it grows.
“When you get to a place where that youth believes they can trust you or call you to speak to you, that in itself is the ultimate outcome,” said Larry Johnson, COMPASS Youth Collaborative crisis coordinator. “I told the kids all the time, ‘I want to see you here. I want to see you happy and smiling and feeling safe.’”
Over the past year, COMPASS has been able to change the lives of more than 200 teens who have found jobs, graduated high school and earned college scholarships.
“There’s a whole world of kids out here that’s trying to do the best they can, be the best they can, and it’s not being seen enough,” Johnson said.
Organizers found that 60% of the youth involved in COMPASS reduced their engagement in violence and 71% accomplished educational goals. For every young person they take under their wing, it’s another life they’re saving from the streets.