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Impacted by Guns: South Bend program gives gang members chance to change

WSBT 22 photo

Cities all across the country are impacted by guns. South Bend is not immune, but there are some signs that the problem may be getting better.

In 2017 there were more than 100 shootings in the city – 16 were deadly.

This year the numbers are down, but everyone agrees that one shooting is too many.

We are taking a closer look at how South Bend is stopping gun violence.

The group violence intervention strategy, or GVI, was introduced to the city in 2013. It gives individuals involved in gang and gun activity a choice to change or face a new level of law enforcement attention.

David Taylor, 50, was born and raised in South Bend. He says when he was growing up things were different.

"It was a lot of fun 50 years ago,” Taylor said. “Being able to go outside and leave the doors unlocked, you know what I'm saying, windows up, but nowadays you can't."

Things changed for Taylor after his mom died. At just 9-years-old he found a new family – on the streets.

Petty theft eventually turned into something more.

"The drugs didn't come into effect until the 80s. Once the 80s hit, that was my trade of choice."

The husband and father tried to shield his family from the truth of his earlier days.

"What I did in the streets stayed in the streets. When I came home I was daddy. They didn't understand where I was getting my money from. They thought I worked every day."

His life of crime ended in 2007 when he was arrested for dealing drugs and sent to federal prison.

"I wasn't afraid at all. Because if I was afraid then I wouldn't have been on the streets at all. I didn't have any fear of that. The only thing that made me realize that was when I got incarcerated."

Surrounded by people with life sentences, and thinking about his loved ones, Taylor decided to make a change.

"They said, you don't want to be like me. I would rather see you be better than me."

Now he's part of South Bend's Group Violence Intervention outreach program – Stand Against Violence Everyday, or S.A.V.E.

He visits schools along with Pastor Canneth Lee and GVI Supervisor Isaac Hunt.

As mentors, they guide kids and teens, teaching them to communicate with words and not violence.

This week's theme is superheroes. A lesson taught to Spider-Man: "With great power comes great responsibility."

"I want to give them a solid foundation and an opportunity to make sure that they can be whatever they want to be in life, and not be held back or limited by their environment,” said Devetta Farrow, Coquillard Elementary School principal.

Farrow says when she first started at the school, the atmosphere was tense.

Some of these kids know the sound of gunfire. One boy witnessed a shooting with his own eyes.

"The one who experienced seeing that, you could tell he was traumatized,” said Farrow. “When he would go to class he couldn't focus, he was nervous, he was worried that something would happen. He was worried about his family."

School became a safe-haven, so did spending time with their mentors who listened.

One young man went from aggressive toward others to setting goals and dreams of more.

"When we asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he said, “mayor.” And then what's your second goal, “president.” Very marked change in his attitude. Even his belief in himself," said Farrow.

Isaac Hunt also served time in prison... and says perception is the key to understanding gun violence.

Surrounded by vacant houses rival gangs. and drugs next door can have a psychological effect

"You become numb to it ,” said Isaac Hunt, GVI supervisor. "They have so many barriers in front of them that they don't get the opportunity to really just go to work every single day, because when they fill out an application it automatically goes in the trash can because it has a felony on it," said Hunt.

Isiah Whitmore knows what it's like to be given a second chance. He just got out of the county jail for selling drugs.

Still, it wasn't a lifestyle he was prepared to leave.

"I did not decide, the police decided for me,” said Isiah Whitmore, GVI member. “They decided for me and that's when I came to this program, and it's just been the best thing that happened to me."

This year GVI has 45 participants. 17 are employed, 11 are gaining work experience at Goodwill and 10 clients have completed 180 days of employment.

It's a first step for Whitmore, who wants to go back to college.

"I have learned how to persevere and overcome,” said Whitmore. “That's probably what I like most about the program, a lot of people here have already been through it and they overcame. They let me see it really was possible to change."

Earlier this month faith leaders and the GVI had a to peace walk. Community leaders and police worked together, showing a united front.

The rally cry of "stop the violence" resonated throughout the neighborhood.

A message that should start at home continues at school and in life. Just ask David Taylor.

"Know that killing your own isn't gangster. Make a change before it's too late. Because once you pull that trigger it's over."

For the first time since the outreach program was started, it was given funding from the mayor's office. Over the next three years it will receive a total of $389,000 dollars. Before the program was supported by Goodwill and more than 70 social service providers. The money will help to hire more staff. The hope is to help more people.

Our series on the impact of guns in our community continues tonight at 6. WSBT 22's Katlin Connin sat down with some shooting survivors to talk with them about their long road to recover, and how being shot often triggers post-traumatic stress disorder.

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